Google pushes back against Australian algorithm cop

Google Australia MD warns algorithm regulator would not “lead to higher quality search results or promote journalism”

Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, says that the search company is concerned by a preliminary Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recommendation to create what she describes as an “algorithm regulator”.

Australia’s competition regulator in December released the preliminary report from its “digital platforms” inquiry. The ACCC kicked off its investigation of the market power of major digital platforms —Google and Facebook in particular — in December 2017.

The preliminary report concluded that there is a “lack of transparency in the operation of Google and Facebook’s key algorithms,” citing the examples of the display of results from Google searches and the way in which Facebook selects content for a user’s newsfeed.

The competition and consumer watchdog said it was concerned that the ubiquity of the two platforms and the lack of transparency of their algorithms have “had adverse effects on news publishers and their opportunities to monetise their content”.

Among the preliminary recommendations made by the ACCC was the establishment of a regulatory authority that could investigate whether vertically integrated digital platforms that meet a revenue threshold — $100 million a year from digital ad sales in Australia — engage in discriminatory conduct by “favouring their own business interests above those of advertisers or potentially competing businesses.”

The regulator could monitor the “ranking and display” of online ads as well as other content displayed alongside advertising. That authority, the ACCC said, should monitor the “ranking of news and journalistic content by digital platforms and the provision of referral services to news media businesses”.

“The relevant digital platforms would need to be obliged to provide information and documents to the regulatory authority on a regular basis, and the regulatory authority would need appropriate investigative powers,” the preliminary report said.

The ACCC said it accepted the need to prevent businesses from “gaming” algorithms — hence its proposal for a new regulator that could provide oversight rather than forcing the companies to detail how they rank content.

“The ACCC considers that such a regulatory approach would provide assurances to both businesses and consumers that algorithms are not being used to favour certain businesses or, in the case of news stories, are operating in such a way as to cause significant detriment to the production of news and journalistic content or media markets,” the preliminary report.

Silva said some of the recommendations in the preliminary report, including establishing an algorithm regulator, “risk poor outcomes”.

“We already provide extensive guidance on search ranking, including our 164 page Search quality rater guidelines, and the How Search Works guide,” the Google Australia MD wrote in a blog entry.

“And of course, Google Search results are open for all to see. We believe this approach balances the need for transparency against the risk of manipulation by bad actors and do not believe that an algorithm regulator would lead to higher quality search results or promote journalism.”

While Google Search is popular “we have a lot of competition,” Silva argued. “From a consumer perspective, Google competes for user queries with other search engines, and specialised search services like Amazon, e-commerce sites and travel aggregators.”

Facebook has also hit out at the ACCC's proposal.

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