Canberra launches digital platforms plan of attack

It will include a review of the Privacy Act and the standing up of a dedicated unit within the ACCC to monitor digital platforms.

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The Australian government's digital platforms roadmap

The federal government has agreed with a determination from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) that the country needs to undertake a reform to prepare for the already-here digital age.

The ACCC's Digital Platforms Inquiry in July made a total of 23 recommendations that covered competition, consumer protection, privacy, and media regulatory reform.

See also: Why technology alone won't save us from fake news (TechRepublic)

In response, the government has announced the development of a roadmap for a program of work and series of reforms to "promote competition, enhance consumer protection, and support a sustainable Australian media landscape in the digital age".

In Regulating in the digital age: Government Response and Implementation Roadmap for the Digital Platforms Inquiry, the government said it identified areas for immediate reform, as well as those requiring longer term work.

Items for immediate action, the 19-page document [PDF] says, include the establishment of a special unit in the ACCC that will monitor and report on the state of competition and consumer protection in digital platform markets, take enforcement action as necessary, and undertake inquiries as directed by the Treasurer, starting with the supply of online advertising and ad-tech services.

It will be handed AU$26.9 million over four years.

There will also be a strengthening of Privacy Act protections, as well as a review of the Act. It is expected the review will be completed by 2021.

The government will also address bargaining power concerns between digital platforms and media businesses by tasking the ACCC with facilitating the development of a voluntary code of conduct.

Initial action also includes the commencement of a staged process to reform media regulation towards an "end state of a platform-neutral regulatory framework covering both online and offline delivery" of media content to Australian consumers.

According to the document, several of the ACCC's recommendations align with existing commitments. These include the development of legislation for public consultation to increase penalties under the Privacy Act so it matches Australian Consumer Law and requires the development of a binding online privacy code.

The draft legislation on this will be released for consultation, and subsequent to consultation, be introduced to Parliament in 2020.

Consultation on a range of policy options to strengthen unfair contract term protections for small businesses from late 2019 has likewise been flagged by the government as "in progress".

Also underway is a body of work between Consumer Affairs Australia and New Zealand on how an unfair trading prohibition could be adopted in the Australian context to address potentially unfair business practices.

Meanwhile, the first stage of media regulation reforms, to commence next year, will focus on: Developing a uniform classification framework across all media platforms; determining the extent of Australian content obligations on free-to-air television and whether such obligations should be extended to subscription or on-demand services; and identifying other aspects of the policy framework to support Australian film and television content.

Coming next year will also be public consultation on the proposed amendments to mergers law; a preliminary report from the ACCC on the ad tech inquiry; and a review of advertising rules and restrictions across all delivery platforms, which will also include consideration of mechanisms to monitor and enforce the regulatory framework across all platforms, as well as other measures to remove redundant legislation and implement a coherent legal framework for consumers and industry participants.

Other work will span the Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package, copyright enforcement reforms, and media literacy.

On copyright, the government said it does not support pursuing a mandatory take-down code managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

"Australia's copyright system is critically important to our economy and our creative industries ... enforcing copyright against digital platforms can be challenging," the roadmap document says.

"The government does not support pursuing a mandatory take-down code managed by the ACMA, noting the concerns of both major copyright owners and users, and the potential unintended effects of a code across a diverse copyright market. 

"To get the settings right, more data and further consultation with a broader range of copyright stakeholders, digital platforms, and consumer groups is needed to determine appropriate options for reducing the availability of infringing material on digital platforms."

It follows the government on Wednesday announcing that online platforms would see the amount of time that they have to pull down content after receiving a missive from the Australian eSafety Commissioner be reduced to 24 hours, under a new Online Safety Act for Australia.

The government said next year it will also work with major digital platforms to scope and implement a pilot external dispute resolution mechanism for complaints between consumers, businesses, and digital platforms.

On the horizon for 2021, is for the government to work with Google on introducing a choice of browser, similar to what is in place in Europe.

ACCC chair Rod Sims welcomed the roadmap, stressing the importance of a Digital Platforms Branch and confirmed the ACCC would be probing the digital advertising tech supply chain, focusing on digital display ads.

"We are delighted that the government has recognised the significance of the ACCC's findings on the impact of the leading digital platforms on competition, consumer, privacy, media and advertising markets," he said. 

"We're proud that Australia will now be one of the first countries in the world to develop such a comprehensive roadmap for broad reforms relating to digital platforms.

"Google and Facebook have grown to have almost unfettered market power with significant impacts on consumers that must be addressed."

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