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Spotlight on ACCC digital platforms inquiry after Facebook scandal

An ACCC inquiry has taken on new significance following the revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s use of millions of Facebook users’ personal data to target advertisements in the 2016 US presidential election.

Weeks before the UK Observer published the account of a former Cambridge Analytica employee, whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the consumer watchdog released an issues paper outlining its investigation into the competitive aspects of digital media platforms, including search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms in Australia.

One of the areas of concern mentioned in the paper is the use of personal data by digital platforms.

“[The] use of large sets of personal data for commercial purposes raises competition and consumer concerns, as well as broader policy issues,” the paper states.

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims recently confirmed that the inquiry will examine what data platforms like Facebook gather, what consumers know about these practices and how the data is used.

The timing of the inquiry is fortuitous. People the world over have become disillusioned by the technically legal, yet nonetheless ‘icky’ behaviour of tech giants like Facebook.

As Showpo’s chief marketing officer, Mark Baartse wrote in an op-ed for Internet Retailing, “People are rapidly losing faith in the ability of organisations to protect and responsibly use their data…Responsible data usage will in time become table stakes.”

Mukhisa Kituyi, secretary-general of the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), warned that Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg.

“The current debate about Facebook and data privacy vividly illustrates that most countries are ill prepared for the digital economy,” Kituyi said in a statement on Wednesday.

The UNCATD’s head of internet and computer technology analysis, Torbjörn Fredriksson told a news conference that legal questions also persist around e-transactions and e-signatures, consumer protection online, data protection, cybercrime, taxation and domain names.

“There is some concern that … there is a risk of concentration of markets among the big platforms,” he said, adding that UNCTAD was working on ways to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the ACCC is currently seeking feedback on its issues paper through 3 April.

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