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Google rejects regulator checks on search algorithms

Google rejects regulator checks on search algorithms

Originally posted by Paul Smith @ afr.com

Google will push back against a proposal by the competition watchdog to introduce a regulator to monitor the way its algorithms position news and other content in its search engines, but has conceded increased regulation and oversight of its powers is inevitable.

Australia and New Zealand Managing Director Mel Silva told The Australian Financial Review that Google was looking to collaborate with regulators in the creation of "smart regulation," after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry draft report was released in December.

The report raised concerns about the tech and media giant's outsized influence in advertising and media consumption, and also in the treatment of users' data by Google and Facebook. Ms Silva said Google would be untroubled by the introduction of European Union-style data privacy laws in Australia.

However she was more combative when addressing plans to apply external scrutiny to its algorithms, such as those that govern news rankings and advertising placement on its products. She argued such a move would open up its systems to manipulation.

"[Algorithm transparency] is an issue that we've had on the consumer side for the 20 years that we've been operating," she said. "As soon as you open up those sort of algorithms, the ability for bad actors to come in and manipulate those results is enormous."

In the immediate aftermath of the ACCC report, Facebook's head of content distribution and algorithm policy also hit back at the ACCC proposal to bring in a regulator to oversee algorithms, labelling the idea as unnecessary and unworkable.

The ACCC draft report gained global attention at the end of 2018, with recommendations to act on the increasing market power of Google and Facebook.

These also included a digital platforms ombudsman with the power to rule on disputes between local companies and global platforms and a change to privacy laws to ensure customers are clearly told how their data is being used by third parties.

The issue of disputes between Google and smaller local companies, which work in its ecosystem, came to a head last year when fast growing, and heavily back advertising technology start-up Unlockd fell into administration after being banned from the Google Play app store and AdMob platforms.

The case is now subject to a separate ACCC investigation into potential misuse of market power and breaches of consumer law. Ms Silva did not comment on the Unlockd case, but conceded that the ombudsman proposals had merit.

"I think it's really important that Google co-operates with this process and that we look at it from that lens of what smart regulation looks like, because we do understand that there's a need when there are problems for regulators to step in," Ms Silva said.

ACCC report aftermath

"In other cases there are alternative options, and I think we need to look at what's going to provide society with a net gain, protect competition and make sure consumers are protected.

"The preliminary report isn't very specific, in terms of what the mandate of that ombudsman would be, [but] If we're looking at situations where consumers can make complaints and it's a fair and reasonable ask that's ultimately going to protect consumers – we've got no issue with that."

Adopting the phrase popularised by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Ms Silva said top executives at Google headquarters in Mountain View were very "leaned in" to the ongoing Australian investigations. She said global execs were able to offer guidance on how to best respond to the issues being raised, as they had often been raised already overseas.

Data privacy

One particular focus for regulators is the ongoing concern about the privacy of consumer data, and the lack of control many feel over how data about them is used.

While the ACCC proposed new rules around the requirement for platforms to obtain informed consent for harvesting data, this would still be less stringent than EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws that came in last year, which give consumers the right to be forgotten.

Last week Google was hit by a €50 million ($79.5 million) fine from France's data protection watchdog for breaches of the GDPR laws. Ms Silva however said she was prepared for similarly tough laws in Australia.

She said Google knew Australians cared deeply about controlling their privacy, as its "My Account" page, which explains privacy controls, was accessed 22 million times in Australia last year.

"Before GDPR was introduced in the EU, we made a huge concerted effort to make sure that everything we did complied with those and in most cases those changes were global," Ms Silva said.

"I'm a human being too, with two kids and I want to make sure my privacy is protected at all times as well, so I care deeply about this.

"If we're identifying problems in Australia that have something to do with data and privacy and we've got regulatory solutions that can solve it – we're leaning into that. We believe that's the right thing to do. Especially as tech evolves, making sure that the regulations evolve is very important."

ACCC Chair Rod Sims speaks to media following the release of the preliminary report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry into Google, Facebook and Australian media in December.  Peter Rae

ACCC Chair Rod Sims speaks to media following the release of the preliminary report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry into Google, Facebook and Australian media in December. Peter Rae

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