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Monday, 08 July 2019 11:50

Frydenberg seems to have bitten off more than he can chew

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Frydenberg seems to have bitten off more than he can chew Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay

The Australian consumer watchdog handed its digital platforms inquiry report to the Federal Government on 30 June. A week later, we have only bluster from the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who has apparently put "Facebook and Google on notice over market power".

Or so the Nine newspapers would have us believe. So what does Frydenberg plan to do if, as this report claims, he has warned the two companies "to expect stricter curbs on their market power in the clearest sign yet that the Morrison government is determined to tackle the might of the US tech giants and boost competition in the $8 billion digital advertising market".

As lawyer Bennett Holiday, played by Jeffrey Wright, said in the 2005 film Syriana, "That's quite a statement". (Holiday's response was to a Justice Department official who tried to make out that he was helping to hide information about an oil deal).

What exactly does the government plan to do? Is this some kind of a repeat of the famous Malcolm Turnbull "heads will roll" thunder and fury after the 2016 Census screw-up? (As things turned out, it was only Turnbull's own head that rolled, two years on).

If Frydenberg stops for a minute and thinks, he would have to admit to himself that the chances of either Google or Facebook changing their behaviour one bit because of bold talk by him are close to zero.

Will the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission czar Rod Sims have the nerve to threaten meaningful fines if either of these 800kg gorillas misbehave? What does the past tell us?

Australia is a market of some 24 million people. Google and Facebook, one by choice and the other by force, have kept out (or been kept out) of China and are still turning a pretty profit. That's a market which matters to them. Certainly not Australia.

Would they hesitate to leave Australia if someone tried to pretend they were hairy-chested enough to really threaten the profits they make here? Peter Dutton's encryption law has already given them one valid excuse to do so.

Anyone who is employed by either Google or Facebook won't be affected; the Internet, often unreliable due to the great broadband network we have, is still around.

Sure, both companies will offer some sops to the government in order not to embarrass the politicians. But it really won't make any material difference.

Sometime back, with great fanfare, a few politicians ran a Senate inquiry into the online media's problems and said they would come up with means to help the poor buggers. Sam Dastyari, Sara Hanson-Young and Nick Xenophon were the trio who were involved and they made several bold promises. Nothing came of it. Zilch. Nada. Zero.

Frydenberg and the government are about to stage a repeat.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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