Google tells ACCC it’s not a social media platform

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 21 February 2019
Mel Silva

In Google's response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) digital platforms inquiry it has rejected the idea of a body to oversee its algorithm and argued the inquiry must not treat it the same as Facebook.

In December 2018, the ACCC released its preliminary report on the impact of digital platforms on Australian journalism, which included the recommendation for an independent body to monitor algorithms. 

In its submission Google will argue such a regulator risks “poor outcomes”, adding it already provides transparency into how its algorithm works through its 164-page Search Quality Rater guidelines and How Search Works guide.

“We believe this approach balances the need for transparency against the risk of manipulation by bad actors and don’t believe that an algorithm regulator would lead to higher quality search results or promote journalism,” Google MD Mel Silva said.

“Google News has no ads, nor does the news results tab on the search page.

“Unlike social media sites, which operate in largely closed environments and benefit from users spending more time on the site, the success of Google Search relies on linking users with relevant results.

“This is an important distinction, highlighting the need to differentiate between digital platforms."

Silva argued it provides free traffic to Australian news publishers, referring two billion clicks to Australian news sites in 2018 alone.

“These clicks amount to free traffic that helps publishers generate ad revenue and provides the opportunity to turn casual readers into loyal subscribers,” Silva said.

However, ACCC Rod Sims argued it’s because of the digital platforms’ stronghold on the market that there are concerns around how they operate.

Sims highlights concerns around a lack of transparency in the ranking of news content, ranking algorithms that don’t appropriately recognise original news content or unfairly treats content which sits behind a paywall and restrictions on the types of advertising available in certain formats.

“The aim is that the regulator would provide transparency about how media content is treated by the algorithms,” Sims said.

“For example, is advertiser-funded content ranked higher than paid content? How is news content which substantially reproduces other original content ranked?”

While Facebook is yet to make its submission to the ACCC, this week its vice president of APAC policy Simon Milner also hit back at the idea of an algorithm regulator and argued Facebook can’t be blamed for journalism losing advertising dollars.

Silva similarly argued Google faces competition from other search engines and specialised services such as Amazon and travel aggregators.

She added that Australian platforms such as Seek, Domain and REA have also contributed to journalism’s loss of advertising revenue.

“From an advertising perspective, search advertising is just one of many channels advertisers invest in and we compete directly for advertising dollars with other digital channels, as well as television, print, radio and outdoor advertising,” Silva said.

The ACCC’s final report is expected to be released in June.

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