Australia to get digital platforms watchdog

The federal government will set up a Digital Platforms Branch within the ACCC and consider establishing a special ombudsman to resolve disputes with consumers and small businesses.

The release of the Government’s Response and Implementation Roadmap for the Digital Platforms Inquiry comes after a series of recommendations by the national competition and consumer regulator relating to the impact of search engines, social media platforms and digital content aggregators on competition in media and advertising markets.

Scott Morrison

The ACCC inquiry is part of a move by the government to modernise and update Australia’s media laws.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Thursday that the government will invest $26.9 million over the next four years to immediately create a new special unit within ACCC with the power to proactively investigate  digital platform markets.

The Digital Platforms Branch will monitor and report on competition and consumer protection issues, starting with online advertising and advertising technology services.

Investigating digital platforms

“In the 2019–20 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook we are committing $27 million over four years for a Digital Platforms Branch within the ACCC,” the government response says.

“The branch will monitor and biannually report on digital platforms, take enforcement action as necessary, and conduct inquiries as directed by the Treasurer, starting with an inquiry into competition for the supply of ad tech services and the supply of online advertising by advertising and media agencies.”

The unit will also provide advice to the government on the impact of moves by Google in Europe to enable Android users to choose their default internet browser and search engine following an antitrust ruling by the European Union.

Dispute resolution

The government will also consider establishing a Digital Platforms Ombudsman to settle disputes between digital platforms, and consumers and small businesses by 2012.

In its response, the government gives in-principle support to developing a pilot external dispute resolution scheme in 2020 with a view to creating a permanent ombudsman.

“The outcomes of the pilot scheme will inform consideration of whether to establish a Digital Platforms Ombudsman to resolve complaints and disputes between digital platforms and the individual consumers and small businesses using their services,” it says.

The government says there is also “merit” in requiring digital platforms operating in the Australian market to show they have internal dispute resolution processes before needing to escalate concerns.

Reaction

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has welcomed the response and accepted the proposed dispute resolution mechanism.

“Ensuring digital platform users have access to a single complaint framework accommodating the converging communications landscape is required and appropriate,” Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Board Chair Professor Michael Lavarch said.

“The digital platform landscape is complex and the appropriate regulatory and legislative reform will take time to settle.”

“A Digital Platforms Ombudsman pilot with a clear remit to support users already experiencing detriment is a step that can be taken while the broader issues continue to be assessed.”

Telecommunications Ombudsman Judi Jones said the office would work with the government to develop the scheme.

“While our priority remains the delivery of efficient and effective external dispute resolution services for phone and internet consumers and providers, this work will complement our existing role in the sector,” she said.

Labor has also  given support to the establishment of a Digital Platforms Branch in the ACCC, saying it will safeguard competition and consumers in the digital economy.

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