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The Australian government has revealed how it plans to crack down on Facebook and Google. Here's what it has in store.

Jack Derwin
  • The Australian government has revealed how it plans to police Google and Facebook and break its dominance of the local media landscape, almost two years after it launched its 'Digital Platforms Inquiry'.
  • In an announcement on Thursday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg released the government's response to each of the 23 recommendations the ACCC set out in July.
  • Under the plan, the government has committed to creating an ACCC branch dedicated to digital platforms and an ongoing inquiry into their dominance of digital advertising, but has largely rejected calls for greater funding of Australian journalism and instead opted to allow Facebook and Google to come up with their own codes of conduct.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

After launching a "world-first" and "groundbreaking" inquiry into Facebook and Google more than two years ago, the Australian government has finally announced how it plans on fighting their market dominance.

READ MORE: Government's tech crackdown falls short of the breakup Facebook's co-founder Chris Hughes wants

The government has had the ACCC's final report since July, in which the competition watchdog made 23 recommendations to reign in the two tech titans. That sparked a 12-week public consultation period, with the government on Thursday finally revealing its cards.

"I want us to be the model jurisdiction in the world for how we are dealing with digital platforms, social media platforms," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told media. "And I have a simple rule: the rules that apply in the real world should apply in the digital world."

"The companies are on notice. The government is not messing around. We will not hesitate to act," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.

This is how the government will act on the ACCC recommendations.

The government isn't introducing greater protection for your data right now

Another major sticking point was the ability and proclivity of digital platforms to hoover up user data for profit. In the US earlier this year Facebook was clobbered with a $US5 billion fine for this very habit, sharing it during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The penalty also came with a list of restrictions on exactly what the social media giant can and can’t do.

Accordingly, the ACCC wanted to make data collection policies transparent and enforce "data portability" –empowering users to control their own data. The government supports this in principle but in reality, hasn't announced any actual changes. Instead, it says it will consult further on this meaning for now, it looks like you're mostly on your own.

What it would commit to is raising the penalties for breaching the privacy act. With a bill to hit parliament next year, it's unclear what kind of penalties this would entail however.

The government won't commit to a $50 million Australian journalism fund

Throughout the inquiry, some of the loudest voices condemning Facebook and Google's might have been Australian media companies. Their profits have been eroded as the journalism they pay for is shared freely on platforms from which they don't derive a profit.

In response, the ACCC recommended $50 million be collected form the tech platforms to fund local journalism. The government isn't having it. Instead, it has said it's funding of the ABC and SBS is sufficient -- $3.2 billion and $887 million over the next three years. It will, however, increase grants for regional journalism.

"The Government will enhance the Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package to better support the production of high quality news, particularly in regional and remote areas of Australia," it said.

It also won't tinker with tax settings to encourage philanthropic contributions to media companies.

READ MORE: Australian media companies are now making exclusive content for Facebook, just weeks after they slammed the platform

A new ACCC branch will police big tech

While the ACCC believed its recommendations will curtail the digital platforms, it also wanted to be given more teeth going forward. Its proposal? A new branch of the ACCC dedicated purely to future vigilance. Of all the recommendations this potentially was the most threatening given the ACCC wanted it to interrogate Facebook and Google's algorithms.

The government appears to back this.

"The Government is committing $27 million over the next four years for the creation of a new Digital Platforms Branch to undertake specific inquiries," it said.

It will be examining how the two platforms swallow up digital advertising dollars

The government is also supporting the ACCC desire for an ongoing public inquiry to keep Facebook and Google on their toes when it comes to advertising. However, while the ACCC wanted a five-year purview, the report is unclear on a timeline.

Facebook and Google can voluntarily notify the ACCC of future business acquisitions

But it will only be a voluntary code worked out between Facebook, Google and the ACCC.

They won't be compelled to take down copyrighted material

Instead the government will reexamine this recommendation at the end of 2020.

Google Chrome's default status on some devices looks to be unchallenged

Google Chrome, the eponymous browser, was also been a target of the ACCC. The watchdog is concerned that by making it the default on Android devices, Google is unfairly consolidating a monopoly. Instead, it proposed Australia follow Europe's lead and allow people to choose what browser they use from the get-go.

The government appeared to not take a stance in its report.

Google and Facebook will be allowed to come up with their own code to fight fake news

Fake news, made endemic in the Information Age and emerging as a catch cry by Donald Trump, is also in Australian crosshairs.

While the ACCC was jockeying for some concrete action, the government has opted for the platforms to continue self-regulating, by coming up with a voluntary code of conduct on how they will combat disinformation.

"Should the actions and responses of the platforms be found to not sufficiently respond to the concerns identified by the ACCC, the Government will consider the need for further measures," the report said.

Facebook and Google's response

For their part, the two tech giants welcomed the government's response.

“We share the Government’s view that now is an opportune time for democratic countries like Australia to work with industry on new regulation for the internet that protects the choice and opportunities for millions of Australians that use our services," Facebook Australia and New Zealand director of policy Mia Garlick told Business Insider Australia.

"We support a sustainable news ecosystem which is why we work with publishers to help them reach new audiences and invest significantly in tools to provide transparency over the content people and publishers see on our services. Our primary focus remains on achieving economy-wide privacy protection, data portability and a user focused digital news distribution code, while preserving the many benefits that technology delivers in this country.”

That's lucky considering the government seems unlikely to mandate its behaviour. Google was slightly less verbose.

"We have engaged closely with the ACCC and the Government throughout this comprehensive process and will continue to do so in 2020, including on focus areas such as privacy, ad tech and our work with publishers," a Google spokesperson said.

Industry lobbyist DIGI told Business Insider Australia it will be screening the proposals for "unintended consequences" but it too appeared largely content with the government's response at this stage.

"DIGI is supportive of efforts to modernise relevant media laws for a digital era, and we look forward to contributing to the development of a regulatory framework that duly recognises some of the fundamental differences between digital products and media businesses," managing director Sunita Bose said in a statement.

With the government now taking an active interest in constraining the two platforms, however, it certainly won't be the last word we'll hear from them.