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Should big tech be regulated like big banks?

According to Coscelli, between 2008 and 2018 of the 400 acquisitions made globally by the five largest digital firms none were blocked by competition authorities, making it clear that a hands off approach had not worked.

“The largest international banks are supervised according to different requirements in different jurisdictions,” he said in the speech. “But with a strong shared objective (in this case, financial stability) and close regulatory co-operation, this can be made to work. Likewise, so too can our approach to the largest digital firms.”

“We now know enough, for instance, to make a compelling case that a new regulatory framework for the most powerful platforms is required to promote competition in a number of digital markets,” he said.

Coscelli’s sentiment is broadly supported by his peers but ACCC boss Rod Sims says regulators are still “at an early part of the journey” as to exactly what regulation is needed. Any global framework, akin to what’s applied to global financial markets, will need key details to be ironed out.

However, Sims says regulators around the world have watched the development of Australia’s proposed mandatory news media bargaining code closely, which would force Google and Facebook to pay compensation to media companies in a world first.

On Friday the senate committee reviewing the code recommended that the bill be passed with Labor offering conditional support for the legislation despite threats by the tech giants to reduce their services in Australia.

“We are the 13th biggest economy in the world so when Google and Facebook made threats to the government of that economy that caused a lot of interest overseas,” Sims says. “There’s been a lot of discussion internationally, about the code and the logic for the code.”

The proposed code has also been a topic of discussion in Australia’s technology sector with concerns that it is unworkable and sets a dangerous precedent.

Square Peg Capital partner Paul Bassat says globally consistent regulation is a “really, really good aspiration”

Square Peg Capital partner Paul Bassat says globally consistent regulation is a “really, really good aspiration”Credit:Wayne Taylor

Technology investor and Square Peg founder Paul Bassat says the code shows how regulation can lead to unintended outcomes.

“If the outcome is Google leaving Australia, then clearly that’s not in anyone’s interest, it’s going to create enormous brand damage for Google globally,” he says. “It’s going to be an incredible negative for Australian consumers and businesses… If the policy settings are wrong the implications can be disastrous.”

Bassat says he’s not against regulation of the tech giants and globally consistent regulation is a “really, really good aspiration” but he doesn’t know how realistic it is in the short to medium term as national interests are often prioritised.

Jackie Vullinghs, principal at venture capital firm Airtree Ventures, is also concerned with the consequences of regulation such as the proposed media code.

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“There’s a lot of complexity and there are probably a lot of unintended consequences that come with things like having to let the publishers know about changes to the algorithm,” she says. “If you think about how much money could be made if that information was leaked or if people use that information ahead of algorithm changes. I think that’s impractical in real life.”

However, Vullinghs concedes some regulation is needed and it may need to be international as she says Google and Facebook have grown well beyond being just private companies operating in the market.

“They have moved into a world, or into an environment where they are the primary way that consumers access information online,” she says. “As a result they do need to be held to account that the information that they’re providing to consumers is accurate.”

Google and Facebook declined to comment.

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