Australian legislators have revealed they are considering creating a new regulator that can set rules for algorithms, as well as mooting new rules to hold companies to greater account for data breaches, and will look to explore implications of the metaverse.
The Senate Economics References Committee has launched a new inquiry into digital platforms operated by “Big Tech” companies. The firms in question will spring no surprises — Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft. A special note was reserved for TikTok, as well.
In an issues paper, the committee said that while the digital age had brought “extraordinary advances,” it had “created new threats to consumer privacy.”
As a result, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) was looking at regulatory options with regard to collecting data from Aussie consumers.
It also noted that the Optus and Medibank data breaches highlighted particular concerns in Australia. Plus, despite the Morrison Government introducing laws to allow the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) to access data disruption warrants, the ACIC does not have the powers to address the issues raised by the Optus and Medibank breaches.
The paper also noted that the expansion in the use of algorithms to surface content to users — particularly in the healthcare, education, employment, and banking sectors — presented problems. The use of algorithms in “public decision-making processes calls for a concomitant focus on the potential pitfalls associated with the development and use of algorithms, notably the concerns around potential bias,” said the paper.
The Committee also noted that there is no equivalent role in Australia for the US’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in regulating or overseeing the use and effects of algorithms in Australians’ lives. It also noted that the Section 230 provision of the US’ Communications Decency Act (which effectively provides legal immunity for online platforms if their users post illegal content) had been facing calls for an overhaul from both sides of the US political divide.
The Committee is also going to cast an eye over the potential implications of the metaverse. “It is unclear what the metaverse will look like. It could bring content to those in ways never before imagined and, with it, legal issues and challenges never before contemplated,” said the paper.
It also posited a non-exhaustive list of emerging issues with the metaverse, such as identity, addition and mental health, privacy and data security, currency and digital payments, and law and jurisdiction.
Disinformation is expected to be another big plank of the Committee’s remit. “Problematic information is often distributed via platforms, especially popular social
media platforms such as Facebook, video sharing sites like YouTube (owned by Google), and popular messaging applications such as WhatsApp (owned by Facebook),” said the paper.
Despite the number of reforms aimed at strengthening rules around disinformation, the Committee said that the rules are “too broad and vague” and “pose a risk to human rights.”
It also said that big tech companies have a “corporate responsibility” to ensure customers and data remain safe and that US companies have two options for complying with any rules: a foreign branch; or an Australian subsidiary company.
“Directors in local branches and subsidiaries of foreign Big-Tech companies should closely adhere to directors’ duties and obligations as set out clearly in Australian law,” it said, noting that there may be a need for further clarification of the rules.
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