US, EU, Australia pile into Google – NZ pulls its punches

OPINION

The US Justice Department has finally filed its long-anticipated antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging that it abused its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition and harm consumers – with a particular focus on Google’s exclusive search deals for Apple’s iPhone.

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The European Commission has already slapped Google (now listed under holding company Alphabet), with two massive anti-trust fines:€1.49 billion (NZ$2.67 billion) for what it said was illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search ads, in March 2019, and the previous year a €4.34 billion euro antitrust fine for what the commission said was abuse of its dominance of its Android mobile operating system (Google appealed both penalties).

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has filed multiple Federal Court cases against Google (all ongoing) including proceedings that allege it misled consumers about the amount of information collected for targetted advertising. The government imposed the so-called “Google tax” to clamp down on revenue and profit-shifting. A post-Christchurch mosque shooting legislative update put Big Tech companies in line for fines of up to 10 per cent of their revenue – and jail time for their executives – if they failed to quickly remove harmful content.

The ACCC has heavied Big Tech over a rash of fake ads. The regulator has received a A$27m funding top-up for its crackdown on Google and Facebook. And, following an ACCC determination that Google’s dominant position undermined democracy by hollowing out media, the Aussie regulator has had the green-light from Scott Morrisson’s government to force Google to pay for news.

Here, things have barely stirred. With each new ACCC or Australian Federal Government action against Google, the Commerce Commission or ministerial reaction is inevitably the same on this side of the Tasman: We’re keeping a watching brief.

There are some stirrings.

Labour’s tax policy going into the election included the promise, of sorts, to “work towards implementation of a Digital Services Tax”, “once the international position is clear” (a reference to the OECD’s never-ending, slow-lane effort to clamp down on Big Tech). A 3 per cent DST has been mooted, but the concept has now been kicking around the government for a full two years, and only seems to be drifting further away.

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During the Grace Millane investigation last year, Justice Minister Andrew Little seemed poised to drop the hammer on Google after its sweeping name-suppression breach. But in the end, there was a mere ticking off.

And in April, Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi hinted that a crackdown on Google and Facebook could form part of “phase two” of the Government’s media support package. Now, that one’s joined the teetering pile on the back-burner.

With so many of our trade partners now on the front foot against Big Tech, it could be time to stop watching, and start doing.

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