Could 2019 be the year that big tech companies are reined in?

by Peter Griffin / 08 January, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Big tech companies 2019

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

I hope Mark Zuckerberg and the other titans of Silicon Valley got a good rest over the break because they are in for the fight of their lives this year.

Last year saw the worm start to turn against Facebook, Google and the other online companies that take our attention – and personal details – after a decade or more of largely unregulated growth.

The Cambridge Analytica data scandal did untold damage to Facebook. The #deletefacebook campaign, a plunging share price and leaked emails that revealed the ruthlessness of Zuckerberg’s strategies to deal with competitors only compounded the social network operator’s problems.

Now regulators are closing in. In December, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released a report that showed Google pockets $47 out of every $100 spent on digital advertising in Australia, Facebook and its Instagram app take $21 and thousands of other websites fight over the scraps.

In the face of the two companies’ market domination, the ACCC has proposed a new regulatory body that would make judgments on the fair display of news stories and ads on Google and the appointment of a digital ombudsman to rule on disputes between local companies and the tech giants.

Other proposals aimed at tightening control of the tech companies’ data-harvesting practices would see a version of the European Union’s stringent General Data Protection Regulation legislation introduced in Australia.

This is a hard-hitting response from the Aussie regulator and could make life complicated for Facebook and Google. With similar or greater concentration of power in New Zealand, it would be remiss of our own watchdog, the Commerce Commission, not to undertake its own investigation.

Zuckerberg most fears the dismantling of the monolithic money-making machine he has created as new competitors pick away at his business. But his complacency on the regulatory front could bite him even harder.

The ball is also likely to start rolling this year on oversight of artificial intelligence (AI) and use of algorithms to make decisions that affect our lives. It will begin with the use of algorithms by government departments.

Last year, a stocktake report found that more than a dozen state agencies were using algorithms to aid in decision-making. Some are helpful applications that save taxpayer dollars. But there is little transparency in how they are used and an absence of standardised rules for their deployment in the sector. What if the algorithms are biased by design?

“There is almost no consideration of fairness” in the stocktake, says the University of Otago’s James Maclaurin, a specialist in AI and public policy.

“Should we use a tool to prioritise spending that leaves the average stakeholder better off but leaves some citizens, the statistical outliers, much worse off?”

The reality is that AI-driven decision-making in government is a black box that we have no visibility into. The private sector is even worse. Some sort of independent scrutiny of the algorithmic decision-making that we are all subject to is increasingly likely. We need an honest broker to assure us that we are being treated fairly.

The Government may also move to restrict access to x-rated websites this year, as it seeks to protect minors who are just a Google search away from accessing hardcore porn.

The multibillion-dollar online porn industry has its own Googles and Facebooks. They are called Pornhub and XHamster and they appear high in the rankings of most-visited websites from New Zealand. Much of the content depicts violent, aggressive, misogynistic and coercive behaviour.

Restricting access, however, is a technical nightmare. It would require the website owners to implement age-verification systems that they have strongly resisted. Blocking of websites by internet providers could be mandated, but there are ways to circumvent that. Children’s Minister Tracey Martin faces an uphill battle in cracking down on porn.

The web’s freewheeling days aren’t numbered just yet, but moves to check the power of the handful of companies that dominate the digital space are very much in play.

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Vincent O’Malley: Why we need to open up about past Māori and Pākehā conflict
106234 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z History

Vincent O’Malley: Why we need to open up about pas…

by Sally Blundell

Calls are growing for us to take a more honest look at our past, particularly the wars over land and power that shaped the country.

Read more
Scott Morrison: How a 'doomed' PM stormed the country with one killer line
106291 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z World

Scott Morrison: How a 'doomed' PM stormed the coun…

by Bernard Lagan

As Australia’s tourism tsar 13 years ago, Scott Morrison oversaw the rollicking “So where the bloody hell are you?’’ ad campaign.

Read more
What you need to know about knee replacements
105774 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z Health

What you need to know about knee replacements

by Ruth Nichol

Replacement knee joints are giving thousands of Kiwis decades of service, but don’t rush to get one.

Read more
How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miranda Tapsell back to her roots
106072 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Movies

How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miran…

by Russell Baillie

Miranda Tapsell tells Russell Baillie how she came up with Top End Wedding and why its Northern Territory setting means so much.

Read more
The link between cardiovascular health and dementia
105915 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Health

The link between cardiovascular health and dementi…

by Nicky Pellegrino

New research into the brain has found that cardiovascular ill health is linked to cognitive decline and dementia.

Read more
Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned freezing works
106317 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned free…

by John Summers

John Summers wonders if his abiding interest in New Zealand’s abandoned freezing works is actually a long farewell to his grandfather.

Read more
Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlooked moonshot
106359 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Tech

Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlo…

by Peter Griffin

“We bow down to this idea of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos going to Mars, when here in our own country, we had the equivalent."

Read more
Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure
106331 2019-05-24 11:09:35Z Music

Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure

by Elizabeth Kerr

Contemporaries and students are paying tribute to composer John Rimmer and his musical legacy.

Read more