Google quiet on ACCC browser monopoly concerns

The search giant used its response to the ACCC to say its advertising platforms help publishers make more money online and drive traffic.

Google has avoided responding to a request made last week by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to provide its Android-users in Australia with a choice of browser, focusing instead on the publishing industry.

The ACCC wants to put an end to the monopoly Google has in the search engine market down under, asking the tech giant in its Digital Platforms Inquiry: Final Report [PDF] to offer consumers a choice of which platform they use to search, just like it's required to in Europe.

"Google has substantial market power in the supply of search services and in the supply of search advertising. The ACCC identified customer inertia as a barrier to expansion and considered that that customer inertia is reinforced by a default bias that exists with Google Search being the default search engine on a number of internet browsers, and Google Chrome being the default internet browser on a number of operating systems," the ACCC said.

If Google does not introduce similar options for Australian Android users by 26 January 2020, the ACCC said it will submit to the government that it should "consider compelling Google to offer this choice".

"The ACCC considers that offering this choice screen for Australian consumers, for both search engines and internet browsers, would improve consumer choice and be pro-competitive," it wrote.

Despite saying in a submission earlier this year that it rejected the idea that its business requires tougher regulatory scrutiny in Australia, Google also did not comment on the new specialist digital platforms branch that is expected to be stood up under the care of the ACCC. The proposed branch would be in charge of investigating, monitoring, and performing enforcement activities in markets where digital platforms operate

In a blog posted on Sunday, Google instead used its response to the ACCC to say its advertising platforms help publishers make more money online and drive traffic to their websites, labelling its part in the process as being of significant value to publishers.

"Our products and services help Australians to access information, collaborate, reach new audiences, and get things done," Google wrote.

"In 2018, Google referred more than 2 billion free clicks to Australian news sites, which helps to drive subscriptions and ad revenue. We also provide a platform to help publishers to show ads on their own sites. This is used by thousands of news publishers both in Australia and around the world, and publishers retain approximately 70% of the ad revenue that is generated."

Google said that through this combination of referral traffic and ad revenue, the company provides "significant value to publishers".

"Ad-supported models have always been part of the news industry, whether print or digital, and we share their interest in keeping the internet free and open. We work closely with the news industry and will continue to do so as consumer expectations and technology evolve."

The Digital Platforms Inquiry made a total of 23 recommendations -- many of which are directly related to Google's local operations.

Of particular concern to the ACCC is a lack of transparency in online advertising markets, saying it is unclear how Google and Facebook rank and display advertisements and the extent to which each platform places self-preference on their own platforms or businesses in which they have interests.

"A lack of transparency makes it difficult for advertisers to understand the factors that influence the display of their advertising to consumers and, in particular, to identify whether Google or Facebook are favouring their own business interests at the expense of rival advertisers and consumers," the watchdog wrote.

"While the ACCC appreciates the significance of minimising the opportunity for businesses to 'game' the key algorithms, it is not clear that the appropriate balance has been struck between avoiding this risk and ensuring advertisers are appropriately informed of the outcomes."

The ACCC made a handful of recommendations centred on this, with one of the recommendations asking for an inquiry into ad tech services and advertising agencies.

It also asked for a process to implement a "harmonised media regulatory framework", which would be a new platform-neutral regulatory framework developed in a bid to ensure effective and consistent regulatory oversight of all entities involved in content production or delivery in Australia, including media businesses, publishers, broadcasters, and digital platforms.

"This would create a level playing field that promotes competition in Australian media and advertising markets," the ACCC wrote.

Additionally, it's calling for a requirement that would force designated digital platforms to provide codes of conduct governing relationships between digital platforms and media businesses to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

On "fake news", the report recommended for ACMA to possess a mandatory take-down code to assist copyright enforcement on digital platforms.

Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland said it isn't enough to trust the likes of Google and Facebook to monitor fake news when their respective business models rely on advertising revenue.

"The very fact that these organisations are there to make a profit, the profit motivation is the primary driver. That is not to say that; they are very conscious of their public relations side there. But again ... even the fines that they've received and the bad publicity for those privacy breaches in the US, multi-billion dollar fine there, that's barely a blip on their revenues," she said, speaking on Sky News at the weekend.

Rowland agrees that there should be a level of government intervention. 

"I think we need to, whilst instinctively we would be anti-fake news, I think that you would need to exercise caution in how that is done," she said. "You don't want anyone coming along, a regulator for example, who is censoring what actually goes out to people, because the whole idea of the internet, as we know, is that there's a freedom of information and democratisation on that platform."

The ACMA would also be involved by being tasked with ensuring digital platforms comply with internal dispute resolution requirements, as well as through the establishment of an ombudsman scheme to resolve complaints and disputes with digital platform providers.

"The tech industry is dynamic and drives innovation that gives consumers better products, services, and choices," Google wrote in response. "When it comes to advertising, search advertising is one of many online and offline channels in which advertisers invest. We compete directly for advertising dollars with other digital channels, as well as television, print, radio and outdoor advertising.

"Businesses invest in online advertising because it allows them to connect with audiences and to measure the impact of that investment."

Google also used its blog to comment on how it works to protect user privacy, saying it believes in giving people transparency, choice, and control.

The search engine giant pointed to its privacy policy to explain what information it collects, why it collects it, and how users can control, update, manage, export, and delete their information.

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