Regulating Facebook, Google and Amazon is hard given their bewildering complexity



Governments are attempting to regulate tech giants, but the digital disruption genie is already out of the bottle.
Shutterstock

Zac Rogers, Flinders University

Back in the 1990s – a lifetime ago in internet terms – the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells published several books charting the rise of information networks. He predicted that in the networked age, more value would accrue in controlling flows of information than in controlling the content itself.

In other words, those who positioned themselves as network hubs – the routers and switchers of information – would become the gatekeepers of power in the digital age.

With the rise of internet juggernauts Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, this insight seems obvious now. But over the past two decades, a fundamentally new business model emerged which even Castells had not foreseen – one in which attracting users onto digital platforms takes precedence over everything else, including what the user might say, do, or buy on that platform.

Gathering information became the dominant imperative for tech giants – aided willingly by users charmed first by novelty, then by the convenience and self-expression afforded by being online. The result was an explosion of information, which online behemoths can collate and use for profit.




Read more:
Here’s how tech giants profit from invading our privacy, and how we can start taking it back


The sheer scale of this enterprise means that much of it is invisible to the everyday user. The big platforms are now so complex that their inner workings have become opaque even to their engineers and administrators. If the system is now so huge that not even those working within it can see the entire picture, then what hope do regulators or the public have?

Of course, governments are trying to fight back. The GDPR laws in Europe, the ACCC Digital Platforms report in Australia, and the DETOUR Act introduced to the US Congress in April – all are significant attempts to claw back some agency. At the same time, it is dawning on societies everywhere that these efforts, while crucial, are not enough.




Read more:
Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance


Gatekeepers reign supreme

If you think of the internet as a gigantic machine for sharing and copying information, then it becomes clear that the systems for sorting that information are vitally important. Think not just of Google’s search tool, but also of the way Google and Amazon dominate cloud computing – the largely invisible systems that make the internet usable.

Over time, these platforms have achieved greater and greater control over how information flows through them. But it is an unfamiliar type of control, increasingly involving autonomous, self-teaching systems that are increasingly inscrutable to humans.

Information gatekeeping is paramount, which is why platforms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook have risen to supremacy. But that doesn’t mean these platforms necessarily need to compete or collude with one another. The internet is truly enormous, a fact that has allowed each platform to become emperor of a growing niche: Google for search, Facebook for social, Amazon for retail, and so on. In each domain, they played the role of incumbent, disruptor, and innovator, all at the same time.

Now nobody competes with them. Whether you’re an individual, business, or government, if you need the internet, you need their services. The juggernauts of the networked age are structural.

Algorithms are running the show

For these platforms to stay on top, innovation is a constant requirement. As the job of sorting grows ever larger and more complex, we’re seeing the development of algorithms so advanced that their human creators have lost the capacity to understand their inner workings. And if the output satisfies the task at hand, the inner workings of the system are considered of minor importance.

Meanwhile, the litany of adverse effects are undeniable. This brave new machine-led world is eroding our capacity to identify, locate, and trust authoritative information, in favour of speed.

It’s true that the patient was already unwell; societies have been hollowed out by three decades of market fundamentalism. But as American tech historian George Dyson recently warned, self-replicating code is now out there in the cyber ecosystem. What began as a way for humans to coax others into desired behaviours now threatens to morph into nothing less than the manipulation of humans by machines.

The digital age has spurred enormous growth in research disciplines such as social psychology, behavioural economics, and neuroscience. They have yielded staggering insights into human cognition and behaviour, with potential uses that are far from benign.

Even if this effort had been founded with the best of intentions, accidents abound when fallible humans intervene in complex systems with fledgling ethical and legal underpinnings. Throw malign intentions into the mix – election interference, information warfare, online extremism – and the challenges only mount.

If you’re still thinking about digital technologies as tools – implying that you, the user, are in full control – you need to think again. The truth is that no one truly knows where self-replicating digital code will take us. You are the feedback, not the instruction.

Regulators don’t know where to start

A consensus is growing that regulatory intervention is urgently required to stave off further social disruption, and to bring democratic and legal oversight into the practices of the world’s largest monopolies. But, if Dyson is correct, the genie is already out of the bottle.

Entranced by the novelty and convenience of life online, we have unwittingly allowed silicon valley to pull off a “coup from above”. It is long past time that the ideology that informed this coup, and is now governing so much everyday human activity, is exposed to scrutiny.




Read more:
Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy?


The challenges of the digital information age extend beyond monopolies and privacy. This regime of technologies was built by design without concerns about exploitation. Those vulnerabilities are extensive and will continue to be abused, and now that this tech is so intimately a part of daily life, its remediation should be pursued without fear or favour.

Yet legislative and regulatory intervention can only be effective if industry, governments and civil society combine to build, by design, a digital information age worthy of the name, which doesn’t leave us all open to exploitation.The Conversation

Zac Rogers, Research Lead, Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Here’s how tech giants profit from invading our privacy, and how we can start taking it back



Your online activity can be turned into an intimate portrait of your life – and used for profit.
Shutterstock.com

Katharine Kemp, UNSW

Australia’s consumer watchdog has recommended major changes to our consumer protection and privacy laws. If these reforms are adopted, consumers will have much more say about how we deal with Google, Facebook, and other businesses.

The proposals include a right to request erasure of our information; choices about whether we are tracked online and offline; potential penalties of A$10 million or more for companies that misuse our information or impose unfair privacy terms; and default settings that favour privacy.




Read more:
Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance


The report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says consumers have growing concerns about the often invisible ways companies track us and disclose our information to third parties. At the same time, many consumers find privacy policies almost impossible to understand and feel they have no choice but to accept.

My latest research paper details how companies that trade in our personal data have incentives to conceal their true practices, so they can use vast quantities of data about us for profit without pushback from consumers. This can preserve companies’ market power, cause harm to consumers, and make it harder for other companies to compete on improved privacy.

The vicious cycle of privacy abuse.
Helen J. Robinson, Author provided

Privacy policies are broken

The ACCC report points out that privacy policies tend to be long, complex, hard to navigate, and often create obstacles to opting out of intrusive practices. Many of them are not informing consumers about what actually happens to their information or providing real choices.

Many consumers are unaware, for example, that Facebook can track their activity online when they are logged out, or even if they are not a Facebook user.




Read more:
Shadow profiles – Facebook knows about you, even if you’re not on Facebook


Some privacy policies are outright misleading. Last month, the US Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook on a US$5 billion fine as a penalty for repeatedly misleading users about the fact that personal information could be accessed by third-party apps without the user’s consent, if a user’s Facebook “friend” gave consent.

If this fine sounds large, bear in mind that Facebook’s share price went up after the FTC approved the settlement.

The ACCC is now investigating privacy representations by Google and Facebook under the Australian Consumer Law, and has taken action against the medical appointment booking app Health Engine for allegedly misleading patients while it was selling their information to insurance brokers.

Nothing to hide…?

Consumers generally have very little idea about what information about them is actually collected online or disclosed to other companies, and how that can work to their disadvantage.

A recent report by the Consumer Policy Research Centre explained how companies most of us have never heard of – data aggregators, data brokers, data analysts, and so on – are trading in our personal information. These companies often collect thousands of data points on individuals from various companies we deal with, and use them to provide information about us to companies and political parties.

Data companies have sorted consumers into lists on the basis of sensitive details about their lifestyles, personal politics and even medical conditions, as revealed by reports by the ACCC and the US Federal Trade Commission. Say you’re a keen jogger, worried about your cholesterol, with broadly progressive political views and a particular interest in climate change – data companies know all this about you and much more besides.

So what, you might ask. If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to lose, right? Not so. The more our personal information is collected, stored and disclosed to new parties, the more our risk of harm increases.

Potential harms include fraud and identity theft (suffered by 1 in 10 Australians); being charged higher retail prices, insurance premiums or interest rates on the basis of our online behaviour; and having our information combined with information from other sources to reveal intimate details about our health, financial status, relationships, political views, and even sexual activity.




Read more:
Why you might be paying more for your airfare than the person seated next to you


In written testimony to the US House of Representatives, legal scholar Frank Pasquale explained that data brokers have created lists of sexual assault victims, people with sexually transmitted diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia, AIDS, sexual impotence or depression. There are also lists of “impulse buyers”, and lists of people who are known to be susceptible to particular types of advertising.

Major upgrades to Australian privacy laws

According to the ACCC, Australia’s privacy law is not protecting us from these harms, and falls well behind privacy protections consumers enjoy in comparable countries in the European Union, for example. This is bad for business too, because weak privacy protection undermines consumer trust.

Importantly, the ACCC’s proposed changes wouldn’t just apply to Google and Facebook, but to all companies governed by the Privacy Act, including retail and airline loyalty rewards schemes, media companies, and online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay.

Australia’s privacy legislation (and most privacy policies) only protect our “personal information”. The ACCC says the definition of “personal information” needs to be clarified to include technical data like our IP addresses and device identifiers, which can be far more accurate in identifying us than our names or contact details.




Read more:
Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy?


Whereas some companies currently keep our information for long periods, the ACCC says we should have a right to request erasure to limit the risks of harm, including from major data breaches and reidentification of anonymised data.

Companies should stop pre-ticking boxes in favour of intrusive practices such as location tracking and profiling. Default settings should favour privacy.

Currently, there is no law against “serious invasions of privacy” in Australia, and the Privacy Act gives individuals no direct right of action. According to the ACCC, this should change. It also supports plans to increase maximum corporate penalties under the Privacy Act from A$2.1 million to A$10 million (or 10% of turnover or three times the benefit, whichever is larger).

Increased deterrence from consumer protection laws

Our unfair contract terms law could be used to attack unfair terms imposed by privacy policies. The problem is, currently, this only means we can draw a line through unfair terms. The law should be amended to make unfair terms illegal and impose potential fines of A$10 million or more.

The ACCC also recommends Australia adopt a new law against “unfair trading practices”, similar to those used in other countries to tackle corporate wrongdoing including inadequate data security and exploitative terms of use.

So far, the government has acknowledged that reforms are needed but has not committed to making the recommended changes. The government’s 12-week consultation period on the recommendations ends on October 24, with submissions due by September 12.The Conversation

Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Co-Leader, ‘Data as a Source of Market Power’ Research Stream of The Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chinese propaganda goes tech-savvy to reach a new generation



As younger Chinese become increasingly addicted to their mobile devices, the government’s propaganda offices have had to rethink their strategies.
Roman Pilipey/EPA

Wanning Sun, University of Technology Sydney

Earlier this year, a new app was launched in China to put the patriotism of Chinese citizens to the test.

Named “Study Xi to Strengthen the Nation”, the app quizzes users on all things related to President Xi Jinping – his policies, activities, achievements, theories and thoughts. Users can earn points and win prizes for correct answers and compete with colleagues and friends to see who knows the most about China’s leader.

The app is the latest example of a rethink by the Communist Party when it comes to its propaganda efforts and how best to justify the legitimacy of its one-party rule, extol the virtues of the party, and promote patriotism to an audience of young, tech-savvy Chinese.

For those institutions responsible for the production of effective propaganda, this is a real challenge. After all, propaganda in the 21st century has to go beyond forcing people to sit in study sessions on Friday afternoons, read the People’s Daily newspaper, or watch China Central Television (CCTV) in group meetings.




Read more:
Extremist mobs? How China’s propaganda machine tried to control the message in the Hong Kong protests


From sermons to ‘indoctritainment’

Thanks to a number of developments, the old propaganda messages of previous generations can easily be repackaged for millennials. Like the rest of the world, Chinese millennials are keen adopters of the latest mobile technologies and suffer from short attention spans. They are also just as enthusiastic as their Western counterparts about posting jokes, music videos and short, sharp, attention-grabbing memes on social media.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, is putting more of an emphasis on humanising its approach to leadership. Politicians are keen to be seen as relatable rather than authoritative figures.

So, to get its messaging across in a new way, party propaganda has morphed from dry sermons to what I like to call indoctritainment. And these campaigns are often high-end productions.

Increasingly, ideological messages are more effective if they are delivered using a platform that’s already been trialled and proven in marketing. In 2016, for instance, CCTV launched a promotion of the Communist Party in the form of a public awareness advertisement to mark the 95th anniversary of the founding of the party.

The one-minute video, titled “I am a Chinese Communist Party member,” features heartwarming vignettes of individuals from different walks of life – teacher, cleaner, surgeon, policeman, local public servant, fisherman – who are all good Samaritans doing their bit to help others.

The message is clear: the party is being re-branded as an organisation made up of unsung heroes. As the voice-over explains:

I am the first one to arrive, I am the last one to leave, I’m the one who thinks of myself the least, and cares about others the most … I am the Chinese Communist Party, and I am always there with you.

Another video promoting the Chinese military, “I am a Chinese soldier”, demonstrates the point. Even without the English subtitles, it’s not hard to see what the producers were going for: a patriotic Hollywood movie or romantic tear-jerker.

The pop culture treatment, with American accents

Another tactic is the use of popular culture as a way of conveying sometimes dense or dull Chinese government policies, especially if the intended audience is global.

In 2015, a video called “The 13 what” used catchy pop music, colourful animation, and American-accented English to explain China’s 13th five-year national plan.

Channelling David Bowie, Monty Python and the psychedelia of the 1960s, the three-minute video was produced by a digital media production team operating under the auspices of the government’s main propaganda offices in Beijing.

Two years earlier, the same studio also produced the widely circulated five-minute video clip, “How leaders are made”. Xi Jinping appears in the clip as a cartoon character, as do US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Light-hearted, zany, and (again) featuring American English, the video informs viewers that Xi has worked long and hard to move up China’s political ladder. The implication is that Xi’s power is just as legitimate as that of his Western counterparts.

Within a short period after its release, the video had been viewed more than a million times on Youku, China’s version of YouTube.

Propaganda by way of screen bullets

Increasingly, the Communist Party’s propaganda material goes viral only after it appears on popular video-sharing websites with “bullet screens”. This is an interactive feature that enables viewers to “shoot” text comments across the screen as the video is being streamed. It’s very popular with younger audiences.

One of China’s biggest bullet screen platforms is Bilibili, often referred to as “the B site”.

The site used to be occasionally shut down for streaming what the government considers “morally unsound” material.

To stay on the party’s good side, Bilibili now plays host to a wide suite of propaganda produced by CCTV or the Chinese Department of Propaganda. In 2015, the Communist Youth League of China also began to hold regular courses on the site aimed at promoting patriotism among young people.

But how effective is it?

Just how successful these strategies have been is still not entirely clear. While the “Xi Jinping thought” app has captured the imagination of many outside China, party members who have been encouraged – in some cases requested – to download the app seem less than enthusiastic.

And some of these new propaganda efforts have backfired and attracted cynical responses online, even ridicule.




Read more:
Xi Jinping’s grip on power is absolute, but there are new threats to his ‘Chinese dream’


But judging by the many comments viewers have left on the B site, it seems fair to conclude that some of the tactics have had the intended effect of endearing the party and its leaders to the young and impressionable.

This is a reminder of how naïve it is to assume that technologies are inherently democratising, and that digital disruption is likely to spell the end of communism in China. Such assumptions still permeate most Western media stories about the Communist Party’s new propaganda strategies, but this is clearly not the case.

As the party’s propaganda strategies become more nuanced and sophisticated, so should our frameworks for understanding them.The Conversation

Wanning Sun, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no evidence 5G is going to harm our health, so let’s stop worrying about it



The scientific consensus is that 5G doesn’t pose a danger to our health.
From shutterstock.com

Sarah Loughran, University of Wollongong

Hype continues to surround the roll-out of 5G technology in Australia and across the world.

While there is promise of faster network speeds, and talk of exciting technologies like driverless cars, there’s also a growing movement to stop the implementation of 5G due to concerns about the effects it may have on our health.

But the scientific evidence we’ve got assures us there’s no reason to worry. The radio frequencies powering 5G will be well below the exposure limits known to cause harm.




Read more:
Do Wi-Fi and mobile phones really cause cancer? Experts respond


What is 5G and how does it work?

5G is the 5th generation of mobile phone technology. All generations of mobile phones work using what’s called electromagnetic energy. The specific type of electromagnetic energy used by mobile phones is known as radiofrequency, sometimes called radio waves.

This type of radiation is non-ionising, so it doesn’t damage our DNA like ionising radiation can, such as that from the sun or x-rays. Ionising means there’s enough energy to remove electrons from the atoms they are attached to. This makes them unstable and is something non-ionising radiation, such as that used by mobile phones, lacks the power to do.

Initially, 5G will use the same type of radio waves as used in 4G. But in the future it will operate at higher frequencies. Higher frequencies allow for faster connections and response times, while also increasing capacity for more users to be connected.

The higher the frequency, the shorter the distance the radio waves travel. As the 5G frequencies will be higher than those used by previous mobile phone technologies, a lot more mobile phone base stations will be required.

Much of the public concern has centred around these two new elements – that the frequencies used will be higher, and that there will be more mobile phone base stations. While some people believe these two factors alone will lead to higher exposures, the reality is actually very different.




Read more:
Can you be allergic to your Wi-Fi?


Higher frequencies don’t travel as far, meaning exposure is not as deep as previous generation technologies. This results in more superficial exposures which are mostly absorbed by the skin rather than deeper in the body.

The idea that more base stations lead to higher exposures is also a common misconception. A larger number of base stations will actually provide a more efficient network. This means mobile phones can operate at a reduced power, which is likely to result in reduced overall personal exposure.

Research and regulation

Importantly, we have no evidence of any established health effects from the exposures related to mobile phones, despite extensive research. This consensus has been reiterated by independent international expert bodies.

We know a lot about how radiofrequency interacts with the human body. Health effects occur from exposure when there is a large rise in body temperature. But this will only be seen at power levels far higher than those used in telecommunications, like from a microwave oven.

The temperature changes associated with mobile phones are very small, especially when compared with normal day-to-day or exercise-induced temperature variations.

5G is the next generation of mobile phone technology, and is currently being rolled out.
From shutterstock.com

Exposures from mobile phones and their base stations are tightly regulated. In Australia, safety standards are set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

These standards are based on the current scientific evidence. They also cover the new frequencies that will be used by 5G. Importantly, the safety limits are set well below levels known to cause harm. And although technology can legally run at the safety limit, in reality, exposures are typically hundreds of times below these safety limits.

Challenging misconceptions

There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding 5G, and the electromagnetic energy associated with telecommunications more generally. While there’s no evidence of harm from such electromagnetic energy, there is evidence fear and anxiety can be harmful to our health and overall well-being.

While anti-5G sentiment and campaigning might be well-intentioned, without the scientific evidence to back these sentiments, it’s likely doing more harm than good. The challenge we now face is counteracting the misinformation out there.




Read more:
What is a mobile network, anyway? This is 5G, boiled down


The Conversation


Sarah Loughran, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What Australia’s competition boss has in store for Google and Facebook



Google will find it harder to expand, but there’s only so much the ACCC can do.
Shutterstock

Caron Beaton-Wells, University of Melbourne

Central to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms inquiry were two questions:

  • do Google and Facebook hold substantial power in crucial digital markets?

  • does this power pose a risk to competitive processes?

In its Final Report released by the government on Friday, the ACCC correctly answered both with a resounding “yes”.


ACCC, July 28, 2019

The ACCC did not set out to determine whether either company has broken the competition rules. That can only be determined in an investigation of specific conduct based on specific facts and evidence.

The report itemises six such investigations already underway.

Having identified risks, the ACCC did set out to determine how they might be contained.

Its proposals are rightly cautious, reflecting the complexities of digital markets and the challenges in ensuring that any intervention protects the competitive process rather than individual competitors.

With market power comes dangers

The ACCC points out that substantial power won by serving consumers is not against the law.

It acknowledges that Google and Facebook provide services that are highly valued.

And it emphasises the distinctive features of digital markets that contribute to this power: extraordinary economies of scale, network effects, massive accumulations of data and the use of highly sophisticated data analytic techniques.

These features help Google dominate internet search and internet search advertising and help Facebook dominate social networks and display advertising.

While they also help deliver value for consumers, they can be used against new entrants that may offer a better deal and against other businesses (such as traditional media companies) that have come to rely on Google and Facebook to deliver services to customers.

The ACCC wants to reduce the risks…

There are no quick fixes. The ACCC rightly rejected the idea that platforms such as Google and Facebook be broken up.

Given the highly interconnected complex nature of the markets in which the major platforms participate, divestiture would not guarantee, and might in fact harm, consumer welfare.

The report recommends instead building up the ACCC’s capacity to aggressively enforce the competition rules and to review acquisitions that would further entrench the dominant players’ market power.

Many of the other recommendations are designed to ameliorate imbalances in information and bargaining power between the platforms and business users, and between the platforms and consumers in relation to the collection and use of their personal data.




Read more:
Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance


Implementing these recommendations presents challenges, not the least of which is to ensure they don’t themselves damage competition.

…hunt out abuses…

The ACCC proposes the establishment of a new specialist branch within the ACCC to build and sustain the skills needed to continue studying digital platforms and enforcing their competition and consumer rules.

This is a welcome initiative. It replicates similar capacity-building initiatives in the United States and Europe.

The report is peppered with references to European cases in which Google has been subject to thundering fines for various abuses of dominance. It also invokes the European mantra that these powerful companies have “special responsibility”.

But the Australian misuse of market power prohibition may not be flexible as the one in Europe. The ACCC has recommended broadening the unfair trading law in order to allow it more flexibility, and not only for use in dealing with digital platforms.

The recently amended section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act will play a role, but it is yet to be taken for a proper run and, in the digital context, its application will be complicated by the rapid pace of innovation in digital markets.

…and scrutinise mergers…

In an acknowledgement that digital mergers are different, the ACCC wants to ensure the merger laws pay attention to mergers with potential as well as actual competitors, and to mergers with the owners of data assets.

It also wants Google and Facebook to voluntarily notify it of any future acquisitions. This is a polite request backed by a thinly veiled threat of repercussions.

But the report also implies that neither of these proposals may be enough.

Still more changes to the merger law might be needed to persuade judges of the need to stem unhealthy concentration in the Australian economy generally.

Australia almost certainly needs a compulsory notification regime, triggered by a combination of turnover and transaction value thresholds to ensure nascent competitors are not snuffed out.




Read more:
ACCC wants to curb digital platform power – but enforcement is tricky


Both of these are bigger conversations that the Commission needs to engage government and business in.

…while not offering much for legacy media…

The Commission has stepped away from a proposal in its preliminary report that there be a special regulator to oversee the relationships between platforms and media organisations, significant business users and advertisers.

It might have listened to criticism that the proposal would benefit traditional players in disrupted industries more than it benefits consumers.

The advertising industry is highly fragmented, complex and constantly changing. The evidence that the new platforms are distorting competition in the industry is questionable at best. The ACCC has sensibly suggested it needs to thoroughly examine dynamics in the ad tech supply chain before firming up any recommendation.

For the media industry, the compromise is that each platform be required to negotiate a code of conduct to be overseen and enforced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Whether this will address media concerns about the appropriation of their content and about short notice periods for algorithm changes that can make their products hard to find remains to be seen.




Read more:
Digital platforms. Why the ACCC’s proposals for Google and Facebook matter big time


But, recognising that the platforms are themselves knee-deep in the media business, the ACCC has called for a wholesale overhaul of media regulation to level the playing field and remove regulatory impediments to competition, an idea the government seems to have accepted.

…and upgrading protections for privacy

The call for broad ranging reform of our privacy laws to wrench them into the digital age is also likely to be accepted by government.

The platforms might grumble at additional privacy requirements imposed country by country without an international standard, but the proposal to work with them on the development of an enforceable code at least allows them a seat at the table, and a chance to ensure the regulations are workable.

The challenge will be to ensure that the regulatory burdens don’t disproportionately hurt small businesses and prospective entrants, the ones the ACCC wants to help.

An imminent ACCC-led reform that will help both new entrants and consumers is the Consumer Data Right, which will give consumers more control of their data and enable them to move it between suppliers.




Read more:
We can put a leash on Google and Facebook, but there’s no saving the traditional news model


The ACCC’s work on digital platforms has just begun and there is a long and bumpy road ahead. The government should give it the time and money it will need to get on with it.


Caron Beaton-Wells is host of the Competition Lore podcast, exploring competition policy and law in a digital age.The Conversation

Caron Beaton-Wells, Professor, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We can put a leash on Google and Facebook, but there’s no saving the traditional news model


Amanda Lotz, Queensland University of Technology

Living with two preteens, I get almost daily requests to approve new apps. My standard response is to ask my kids to describe the app, why they want it, and how it makes money.

The last question is important, and not just to avoid to avoid in-app charges. Understanding the forces that drive the online economy is crucial for consumers, and increasingly citizens. All the new tools we access come at a cost even when they seem to be free.

How technology companies make money is a good question for digital media users of any age. It lies at the heart of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the power and profits of Google and Facebook, the world’s two most ubiquitous digital platforms.


Australians’ time spent online.
ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report

The competition watchdog’s job was to look at how online search engines, social media and digital content aggregators wield power in media and advertising, how that undermines the viability of traditional journalism (print in particular), and what can be done about it.

Limited recommendations

Its final report makes a swag of recommendations to limit these platforms’ market dominance and use of personal data.




Read more:
What Australia’s competition boss has in store for Google and Facebook


One example is requiring devices to offer consumers a choice of search engine and default browsers. Google now requires Android phones to pre-install Google apps. This feeds a “default bias” that contributes to it being used for 95% of Australian searches.

Another is reforming Australia’s privacy laws to address the digital environment. Platforms’ “take it or leave it” policies now give consumers little choice on having their data harvested.




Read more:
Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance


But on the area of concern central to the inquiry’s establishment –
the decline in journalism – the recommendations are relatively minor:

  • a code of conduct to treat news media businesses “fairly, reasonably and transparently”
  • “stable and adequate” government funding for the ABC and SBS
  • government grants (A$50 million a year) to support original local journalism
  • tax incentives to encourage philanthropic support for journalism.

The reality is that there is little governments can do to reverse the technological disruption of the journalism business.

Targeted revolution

The internet has made stark that news organisations aren’t primarily in the journalism business. The stories they produce play an incomparable social role, but the business model is to deliver an audience to advertisers.


Australian advertising expenditure by media format and digital platform.
ACCC

Social media and search give advertisers better tools to target messages to more precise groups of potential consumers. It is a phenomenally better mousetrap.

Traditional advertising is expensive and inefficient. An advertiser pays to reach a broad audience, most with no interest in what is being advertised.

Search allows advertisers to pay to reach people precisely when they are looking for something. Google knows what you are interested in, and serves up advertising accordingly. In the last quarter alone advertising in its properties (Search, Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Play Store and Shopping) made US$27.3 billion in revenue.

Social media platforms have a different model, but one no less damaging to the old newspaper business model. It’s a bit more like traditional mass media advertising, selling the attention of users to advertisers, but in a far more targeted way.

To the extent Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on capture your attention, and effectively monetise content made by others through sharing, they also undercut traditional news businesses.

Follow the money

No regulation can fix this. As the competition watchdog’s report notes, Australian law does not prohibit a company from having substantial market power. Nor does it prohibit a company “from ‘out-competing’ its rivals by using superior skills and efficiency”.

No one – not even the tech companies – is necessarily to blame for the technological innovation that has disrupted traditional news organisations.

To see that, as with my kids understanding how their apps make money, it’s just a case of following the money.The Conversation

Amanda Lotz, Fellow, Peabody Media Center; Professor of Media Studies, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance



Facebook and Google potentially face fresh curbs on their market power.
Shutterstock.com

Rob Nicholls, UNSW and Katharine Kemp, UNSW

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has called for “holistic, dynamic reforms” to address the online dominance of digital behemoths such as Google and Facebook.

A 600-page report, released today, makes 23 recommendations for regulating digital platforms – covering competition law, consumer protection, media regulation, and privacy.

Most of the suggested reforms are aimed squarely at countering the dominance of Facebook and Google, which the ACCC says has distorted a range of markets including advertising and media.




Read more:
ACCC wants to curb digital platform power – but enforcement is tricky


The ACCC recommends forming a new branch to deal specifically with Google and Facebook. But it doesn’t propose itself as the sole watchdog: the report also recommends a regulatory role for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Meanwhile, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is called upon to develop an enforceable code to regulate platforms’ use of data. And even the Australian Tax Office will potentially be involved, as part of a proposal to introduce measures to encourage philanthropic funding of public-interest journalism.

Digital platforms with more than a million active users in Australia will be required to provide ACMA with codes to address the imbalance in the bargaining relationship between these platforms and news media businesses. These codes are expected to recognise the need for value-sharing and monetisation of news content.

Under the recommendations, ACMA would also be expected to monitor digital platforms’ efforts to identify reliable and trustworthy news, and to manage a mandatory take-down code for content that breaches copyright.

Market muscle

The ACCC report highlights the “substantial market power” enjoyed by Google and Facebook in their respective domains of web searching and social media. While it is not unlawful for firms to have this degree of power, it does mean they are likely to be subject to the (as yet untested) misuse of market power law introduced in 2017.

The ACCC is concerned that current merger laws do not go far enough, given large platforms’ ability to remove future competitive threats by simply buying start-ups outright. Such acquisitions may also increase the platforms’ access to data. The ACCC considers that either or both of these could entrench a platform’s market power.

As a result, the report recommends changes to Australia’s merger laws to expressly require consideration of the effect of potential competition, and to recognise the importance of data. It also recommends that platforms should be obliged to notify the ACCC in advance of any proposed acquisition.

This is not a substantial change to the existing law, which already allows consideration of anti-competitiveness. But it is a signal that the ACCC will be focusing on this issue.

The ACCC also wants Google to allow Australian users of Android devices to choose their search engine and internet browser – a right already enjoyed by Android users in the European Union.

Empowering consumers

The ACCC recommends substantial changes to Australian Consumer Law, to address the huge inequalities in bargaining power between digital platforms and consumers when it comes to terms of use, and particularly privacy.

The report’s most significant proposal in this area is to outlaw “unfair practices”, in line with similar bans in the US, UK, Europe, Canada, and elsewhere. This would cover conduct that is not covered by existing laws governing the misuse of market power, misleading or deceptive conduct, or unconscionable conduct.

This could be relevant, for example, where a digital platform imposes particularly invasive privacy terms on its users, which far outweigh the benefits of the service provided. The ACCC also called for digital platforms to face significant fines for imposing unfair contract terms on users.

The report recommends a new mandatory standard to bolster digital platforms’ internal dispute resolution processes. This would be reinforced by the creation of a new ombudsman to assist with resolving disputes and complaints between consumers and digital platforms.

Protecting privacy

The ACCC found that digital platforms’ privacy policies are long, complex, vague, and hard to navigate, and that many platforms do not provide consumers with meaningful control over how their data is handled.

The report therefore calls for stronger legal privacy protections, as part of a broader reform of Australian privacy law. This includes agreeing with the Australian Law Reform Commission on the need for a statutory tort for serious invasions of privacy.

Legal action ahead?

The ACCC also highlighted several matters on which it is considering future actions. These include the question of whether Facebook breached consumer law by allowing users’ data to be shared with third parties (potentially raising similar issues to the investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission, which this week resulted in a US$5 billion fine against Facebook), and whether Google has collated users’ location data in an unlawful way.




Read more:
Digital platforms. Why the ACCC’s proposals for Google and Facebook matter big time


In a statement, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and federal communications minister Paul Fletcher accepted the ACCC’s overriding conclusion that there is a need for reform.

The federal government will now begin a 12-week public consultation process, and said it expects to release its formal response to the report by the end of the year.The Conversation

Rob Nicholls, Senior lecturer in Business Law, UNSW and Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Co-Leader, ‘Data as a Source of Market Power’ Research Stream of The Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Floating cities: the future or a washed-up idea?



Oceanix, a proposed floating city, has captured the attention of the UN.
OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group

Brydon T. Wang, Queensland University of Technology

Humans have a long history of living on water. Our water homes span the fishing villages in Southeast Asia, Peru and Bolivia to modern floating homes in Vancouver and Amsterdam. As our cities grapple with overcrowding and undesirable living situations, the ocean remains a potential frontier for sophisticated water-based communities.

The United Nations has expressed support for further research into floating cities in response to rising sea levels and to house climate refugees. A speculative proposal, Oceanix City, was unveiled in April at the first Round Table on Sustainable Floating Cities at UN headquarters in New York.

Life on a floating city, Oceanix.
OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group

The former tourism minister of French Polynesia, Marc Collins Chen, and architecture studio BIG advanced the proposal. Chen is involved with the Seasteading Institute, which is seeking to develop autonomous city-states floating in the shallow waters of “host nations”.

While this latest proposal has gained UN attention, it is an old idea we have repeatedly returned to over the past 70 years with little success. In fact, the Oceanix City proposal has not reached the same level of technical sophistication as previous models.




Read more:
The oceans are coming for us: how should we plan for dire sea level forecasts?


A brief history of floating cities

The architecture community was fascinated with marine utopias between the 1950s and ’70s. The technological optimism of this period led architects to consider whether we could build settlements in inhospitable places like the polar regions, the deserts and on the sea.

Plan for Tokyo Bay by Kenzo Tange, 1960.
Wikimedia

The Japanese Metabolists put forward incredible projects such as Kenzo Tange’s 1960 Tokyo Bay Plan and the marine city proposals of Kikutake and Kurokawa.

In the West, Buckminster Fuller proposed Triton City, which would be connected to the mainland via bridges. Archigram, a neofuturistic architectural group, proposed underwater sea farms.

These proposals were directed at solving the impending urban crises of overpopulation and pressures on land-based resources. Many were even sophisticated enough to be patented.

The arc of this global architectural discussion was captured during the first UN Habitat conference (“Habitat I”) in Vancouver in 1976. In many ways, the UN has returned to the Vancouver Declaration from Habitat I to “[adopt] bold, meaningful and effective human settlement policies and spatial planning strategies” and to treat “human settlements as an instrument and object of development”.

We are seeing a pivoting that began in 2008 with Vincent Callebaut’s “Lilypad” – a “floating ecopolis for ecological refugees”.

Where floating cities were once dismissed as too far-fetched, the concept has been repackaged and is re-emerging into public consciousness. This time in a more politically viable state – as a means of addressing the climate emergency.




Read more:
Future ‘ocean cities’ need green engineering above and below the waterline


The technology and types of floating city structures

No floating settlements have ever been created on the high seas. Current offshore engineering is concerned with how cities can locate infrastructure, such as airports, nuclear power stations, bridges, oil storage facilities and stadiums, in shallow coastal environments rather than in deep international waters.

Two main types of very large floating structures (VLFS) technology can be used to carry the weight of a floating settlement.

The first, pontoon structures, are flat slabs suitable for floating in sheltered waters close to shore.

The second, semi-submersible structures (such as oil rigs), comprise platforms that are elevated on columns off the water surface. These can be located in deep waters. Potentially, oil rigs could be repurposed for such floating cities in international waters.

Transforming oil rigs into liveable structures. Ku Yee Kee and Hor Sue-Wern’s entry in the 2011 eVolo Skyscraper Competition.
Ku Yee Kee & Hor Sue-Wern/ eVolo, CC BY

Oceanix City is based on the pontoon structure. This would restrict it to shallower waters with breakwaters to limit the impacts of waves. This sort of structure could serve as an extension of a coastal city, as a life raft for island communities inundated by rising waters, or to provide mobile essential services to residents of flood-prone slums.




Read more:
Concrete coastlines: it’s time to tackle our marine ‘urban sprawl’


Sovereign floating cities and micronations

While some early marine utopian proposals were responses to emerging urban issues, many proposals conceptualised “seaborne leisure colonies”. These communities would be independent city-states allowing inhabitants to circumvent tax laws or restrictions on medical research in their own countries.

This sort of floating city was conceived of as a micronation with sovereignty and ability to provide citizenship to its occupants. The example was set by the Principality of Sealand, off the coast of Britain.

The Principality of Sealand is a micronation situated on Roughs Tower, a platform off the coast of Britain.
Ryan Lackey/Flickr, CC BY

None of these proposals have succeeded. Even modern attempts such as the Freedom Ship and the Seasteading Institute’s plans for an autonomous floating settlement under French Polynesian jurisdiction have stalled. A recent attempt at creating a sovereign micronation (seastead) off Thailand led to its proponents becoming fugitives, potentially facing the death penalty.




Read more:
New laws for the high seas: four key issues the UN talks need to tackle


A viable project?

Technology is not a barrier to floating cities in international waters. Advances in technology enable us to create structures for habitation in deep sea waters. These schemes have never really taken off because of political and commercial barriers.

While this time round proponents are packaging floating cities in a more politically viable concept as a life raft for climate refugees, commercial barriers remain. Apart from the UN, few organisation have the economic and political influence or reason to deliver a satellite floating city in the ocean.

In my view, the future of ocean cities is in technology campuses and in tourism. Given the significant risk of a community in extreme isolation in international waters, the solution to bringing people together in mid-ocean requires us to think about what connects us: technology, work and play. In these three elements we see, perhaps, the two lowest-hanging fruits (or the most buoyant of possibilities) for ocean cities.

The first is in floating tech campuses where large technology companies set up floating data centres and campuses in international waters. Situated outside national jurisdictions, these campuses could circumvent increasingly onerous privacy regimes or offer innovative technological services without having to negotiate regulatory barriers.

The second prospect is a return to the seaborne leisure colonies of the past. Companies like Disney could expand on their cruise offerings to build floating theme parks. These resorts could be sited in international waters or hosted by coastal cities.

Given our fascination with living on water, even if Oceanix City does not suceed, it won’t be long before we see another floating city proposal. And if we get the mix of social, political and commercial drivers right, we might just find ourselves living on one.The Conversation

The Disney Cruise Line could potentially develop seaborne leisure colonies in future.
Diego Villuendas Pellicero/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Brydon T. Wang, Research Assistant and PhD Candidate, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.