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22 January 2021

Following revelations of search algorithm ‘experimentation’ by Google to lower rankings or block news, South Australian Senator Rex Patrick will introduce amendments to the Federal Government’s proposed new mandatory bargaining code for digital platforms to empower Australian competition regulators to conduct regular audits of the tech giants' algorithms and automated decision systems.

“I am most unimpressed with Google,” said Senator Patrick. “It’s a company that purportedly prides itself in the delivery to its customers the links which most closely match an individual customer’s query. We now find that they are actively hiding or de-ranking the most closely matched links."

“We all know that what is at the top of a search page is what is most likely to be read, and what is buried far below is unlikely to be seen."

“Big tech plays a critical role in the modern economy. We cannot allow the products they deliver to be distorted consciously by an organisation or rogue insider for commercial gain or punitive purposes. We cannot allow the products they deliver to be distorted inadvertently by a careless employee or the artificial intelligence which so often sits behind modern algorithm adaptation.”

”Algorithms have the ability to cause anti-competitive behaviour or bias towards media outlets and this must be addressed in the Government’s proposed legislation.”

“As such I will be introducing amendments to the Government’s Bill that will require regular audits and reviews by the ACCC of the algorithms employed by major digital platforms that impact on access to Australian news media content.”  

“ACCC audits and reviews would apply to all digital platforms and digital platform corporations designated by the Treasurer under Section 52E of the Government’s proposed legislation.”  

“Designated digital platforms would be required to provide the ACCC with full access to information about relevant algorithms and automated decision systems as the Commission may require to assess their impact on access to Australian news media content. Non-cooperation would be the subject of significant financial penalties.”  

“Such audits and reviews would be conducted on a regular basis by the ACCC. The Commission would be required to provide the Treasurer and the Parliament with public reports giving its assessment of any evidence of anti-competitive activity or measures that unfairly limit or distort access to Australian news media content.”

“The ACCC would be required to safeguard commercially sensitive information, but would be required to report its independent findings fully to the Government and Parliament.”  

“The designated digital platforms and corporations would be afforded a right of response to the ACCC’s reports.”  

“Regular scrutiny by the ACCC would guide the Government and Parliament as to what further regulatory measures may be required in this very fast evolving field.”

This will not be the first proposal to audit and review the algorithms and automated decision systems of the tech giants. US lawmakers have proposed legislation to scrutinise the machine learning-powered systems employed by digital companies. For example, the Algorithmic Accountability Act proposed by US Democrat Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden would empower the US Federal Trade Commission to create rules for evaluating ‘highly sensitive’ automated systems. Digital service providers would then be required to assess whether the algorithms powering these tools are biased or discriminatory, as well as whether they pose a privacy or security risk to consumers.

Senator Patrick said: "Regular audits and review processes by the ACCC would bring much needed oversight to the often opaque operations of digital giants such as Google and Facebook. Such a measure is entirely justified given the enormously influential role these corporations and platforms already play in Australia's economy, our political system and social and cultural life. The amendments I will bring forward will significantly strengthen the digital code of conduct proposed by the Australian Government.”