- A tough new enforcement regime in Australia could see Facebook and Google compelled to reveal details of their algorithms to regulators.
- An 18-month investigation into the companies concluded that an enhanced regulator is needed, with powers to scrutinize how the companies work.
- The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said it should be able to "pro-actively monitor" whether tech giants’ algorithms are stifling competition, and compel them to hand over information.
- Facebook and Google are famously secretive about how their algorithms work, and the proposals represent a challenge to their desire to keep the details under wraps.
Facebook and Google could be compelled to reveal the workings of the closely-guarded algorithms which power their companies under a new push for tech regulation by Australia.
Australian regulators set their sights on the tech giants when they published the results of an 18-month investigation into the impact of platforms like Facebook and Google on the country’s economy.
The proposals of the report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) — which Australia’s government must now decide whether to implement — would constitute one of the toughest enforcement regimes in the world.
Details of how the tech giants’ algorithms could be put under the microscope were not made explicit in the report, a 619-page document which you can access here.
However, the document outlines a powerful new government regulator within the ACCC which would have the ability to scrutinize the workings of algorithms: the Digital Platforms Branch.
The clearest reference comes near the end of the document, following a section which discusses the risk of Facebook or Google stifling competition in new markets by instructing their algorithms to prioritise their own products over those of rivals.
Page 531 of the document says (emphasis added):
The ACCC notes that concerns over potential anti-competitive behaviour, including by leveraging market power in one market into related markets, is a key reason for the creation of a specialised digital platforms branch of the ACCC, to build on and develop expertise in digital markets and the use of algorithms (recommendation 4).
The creation of this branch will allow the ACCC to pro-actively monitor the conduct of digital platforms and investigate potentially anti-competitive behaviour on the part of digital platforms, including the type of potential conduct discussed in this section.
As the "conduct" in question in these paragraphs is the operation of Facebook and Google algorithms, in order to pro-actively monitor it, it would be necessary for the regulator to understand how they work.
Earlier in the report, the ACCC said it should be able to force Facebook and Google to hand over details of its inner workings.
Page 32 of the report asks the government to grant it "the ability to compel relevant information" via a public inquiry.
In a press conference in Sydney to promote the report, Josh Frydenberg, the Treasurer of Australia, said the ACCC will "lift the veil" on the secretive algorithms, according to Reuters and the Guardian.
According to the BBC, he also said of Facebook and Google that "their activities need to be more transparent."
Facebook did not respond publicly to the regulator’s report, the Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper said that a Google representative said the company would "engage with the government on the recommendations."
The creation of the powerful Digital Platforms Branch was only one of 23 recommendations the report made, which also cover fake news and changing whether Google can automatically set its own services as defaults on Android devices.
For a broader summary of what the report recommended, read this article from Business Insider Australia.
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