Curbing Big Tech: Can Canberra do it, or should we all be helping?

The Australian government has received official recommendations to get tough on the world's digital giants. Ministers say they can and will bring the likes of Google and Facebook to heel: but a former Google Australia executive suggests that such an effort cannot be delivered by governments alone.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has stated confidently that Canberra can regulate the web giants Facebook and Google without waiting for other nations. Fletcher's remarks are the strongest indication yet that the Morrison administration intends to act on recommendations from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to muzzle the web giants, recommendations which were produced following a far-reaching inquiry into their effects on traditional media.

"Until quite recently, the conventional wisdom was that governments of medium sized countries like Australia could not regulate what happens online," Fletcher said at a recent digital convention in Sydney.

According to the government, the fact that so much online activity takes place within just a handful of huge digital platforms - Google, Facebook and other household names - makes the regulator's task simpler than had been envisaged. The authorities have only a few organisations to deal with, and they are large, visible, publicly traded corporations which cannot openly ignore regulations in the nations where they operate.

"We are seeing a market structure evolve in which a small number of very large global companies have used the internet to build very strong positions in markets around the world," said Fletcher.

"It is not, in fact, as challenging in some ways to regulate the internet as we thought it was going to be 20 plus years ago when the view was that there would be millions of web sites around the world and most of them would ignore the regulation of a particular country like Australia."

The web giants are mostly US-based, and even where they aren't they will typically find that they are not beyond the reach of US regulators, even when it comes to operations elsewhere. This is a principle which has been illustrated in recent times with swingeing American fines for British-headquartered arms and cyber tech goliath BAE Systems. BAE was only permitted into the US market on condition that the entire corporation would obey strict compliance standards: it was later discovered that the company's non-US operations had not done so and fines totalling more than $400m were imposed by Washington.

"It is not a tenable position for [the digital platforms] to simply flout a law," Fletcher argued.

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