Wild West Web: There's a new Australian sheriff in town

Canberra's probe into digital media could have major implications for the web giants - and for everyone else in the tech sector.

In business, when the word "tech" is used, we don't normally mean technology in general. We don't mean the many advanced technologies of the chemical industry, or those of heavy engineering or manufacturing, or construction, or energy, or weapons, or even aerospace or transportation in most cases.

What we mean in general when we say "the tech business" is companies which deal either directly in information (including software which will typically handle other sorts of information) and/or in hardware intended to handle information. We normally mean chips and processors, networking equipment, storage, software and the many combinations and applications of these things: from data centres and clouds down to the smallest internet-of-things device or memory card.

In short, in the tech business we are ultimately in the information business. We all depend on people being able to use digital technology to get information they can rely on.

Thus, it behooves us all to worry at the gathering global distrust of digital information today. It's a well-known fact that the traditional news media - which for all its faults was one of the main providers of trustworthy current information - is in steep decline. Its primary source of revenue was advertising. Global ad revenues are actually growing steadily, but overwhelmingly they are shifting into digital forms: and the news media simply cannot compete in the digital ad space against the likes of Facebook and Google. According to IAB/PwC figures, some 74 per cent of all internet ad revenue was captured by the top ten providers as of 2017. Social media, primarily Facebook, has seen no less than 50 per cent year-on-year digital ad growth for five years running.

Not only are the digital giants taking more and more of the money, at least so far, they have not needed to employ many people to handle their huge floods of data. Their processes, unlike those of the traditional media, are almost entirely automated. This means enviable margins: but it would seem to have its downsides in terms of trust and reliability.

Right now, all eyes are on Canberra

Google has been under attack for years, especially in Europe, over perceptions that it allows advertising spend to influence its search results; and further that it is unfairly monetising content that has actually been produced at some expense and effort by others - often traditional news publishers.

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