Facebook is under scrutiny in the ACCC inquiry.
Facebook is under scrutiny in the ACCC inquiry.

Exposed: Facebook’s sneaky tricks

THE Australian Communications and Media Authority says "non-users" of Facebook may not be safe from the harvesting of their private data and it is urging "further examination" of the threat.

ACMA's concern is arguably the most explosive revelation in the 57 submissions to an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission digital platforms inquiry made public this morning.

The inquiry is examining how Facebook, Google and Twitter use and misuse consumers' personal information, plus the impact of algorithms on news diversity and quality, as well as how the reduction in traditional media companies' advertising revenue is affecting the creation of news and journalistic content in Australia.

Some submissions said the future of the traditional media was in jeopardy.

Seven West Media (SWM) said its "ability to maintain viability across all of its media platforms ... is becoming challenging".

News Corp Australia, publisher of this masthead, said digital platforms were "subverting access to online revenue streams" from subscriptions and advertising "which is undermining the sustainability of news and journalism as a private enterprise, leading to widespread cost-cutting in newsrooms and reduced incentives to invest in quality journalism".

News also said there had been an "an increase in echo chambers, or filter-bubbles, as a result of algorithms prioritising certain types of content that generate greater advertising revenues, as well as an increase in 'fake news' invented to generate revenue, or to discredit other news stories".

News also noted the growth in the "rapid spread of misinformation, as there is less oversight and fact-checking of information published and disseminated on digital platforms".

SWM said "regulators need to do more to investigate and shine a light on the behaviour of (Facebook and Google) in data collection, and to consider whether the existing regulatory regime is sufficient to protect the interests of users, to maintain competition in associated markets and to constrain undue influence and power being exerted over businesses and government".

It called for the consideration of a "collective licensing arrangement ... in respect of third party content".

News said "digital platforms do not appear to have appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse or even theft of user data".

Changes to laws, regulations or policies may be "required to address the negative impacts of the platforms on news and journalism", it said.

It raised the new idea of "establishing an Algorithm Review Board to analyse and remedy algorithmic distortions of competition and designate the digital platforms as publishers/broadcasters to remove their incentives to distribute lower quality content".

News would not provide further comment.

ACMA said there was an "absence of transparency" in digital platforms' curation and ranking processes.

"This lack of transparency makes it difficult for users to assess the quality of the results they receive and to evaluate whether or not they have been targeted based on profiling for economic or political purposes," ACMA said. "The identity and motive of the person trying to 'influence' is most often hidden."

ACMA said privacy was a "central issue" in any review of digital platforms.

The platforms needed to needed to provide terms and conditions which transparently explained the way they collect, use and store user data.

"For those users who do not accept the terms offered, there may be only one choice available to them - to discontinue using the platform," ACMA said.

"However, the potential for platforms to harvest data about non-users has been speculated upon and requires further examination".

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month confirmed in testimony before the US Senate that "we collect data on people who have not signed up for Facebook".

Facebook and Google made their inquiry submissions public well prior to the ACCC's official release of stakeholder views today.