• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

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

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.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.