The Australian government’s extensive Digital Platforms Inquiry (DPI) is based on “misunderstandings” and “mischaracterisation” that favour “influential” media incumbents, Facebook has argued in a scathing 141-page submission that warns the DPI’s recommendations could “adversely impact” Australia’s economy.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) driven DPI – a more than 600-page analysis analysing regulatory disparities in the media and Internet content landscapes – “does not contain an accurate or comprehensive evidence base suggesting that there is a public policy problem” that needs to be fixed, Facebook noted.

The company rebutted ACCC warnings about Facebook and Google’s “significant market power”, against which the DPI recommended changes to normalise content policies across legacy media houses and digital enterprises.

Warning that the inquiry was based on a “conflation” of Facebook and Google – “a competitor with a very different business structure and suite of products” – Facebook argued that its services were a boon to small businesses.

Over-regulating the companies, it warned, “risks backing powerful global media businesses, to the disadvantage of consumers, advertisers and small business”.

The DPI report “fails to acknowledge the significant power and influence held by Australian media companies,” the company said, adding that it failed to identify “an imbalance of bargaining power between media publishers and Facebook”.

Therefore, the firm argued, “it is hard to imagine that such influential companies require the assistance of the Australian Government to negotiate commercial terms with Facebook.”

A U-turn on GDPR

Facebook took the opportunity to “confirm our commitment” to Australian privacy laws “equivalent” to the European Union’s general data protection regulation (GDPR).

Strict GDPR privacy regulations have become the bane of companies like British Airways and Marriott, which face fines in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars for major data breaches.

Facebook is currently facing 10 GDPR investigations in Ireland, where it maintains servers that were expunged of 1.5 billion user profiles just weeks before GDPR took effect in May 2018.

Yet the company is singing a different tune after a horror year filled with privacy breaches – including leaked unencrypted passwords, the “network incident” that compromised over 100,000 Australians and 30m users worldwide; the publishing of 540m users’ details on a cloud service; revelations it tracks everything from SMS messages to mouse movements and is working on reading people’s minds; and the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, which affected 80m Facebook users (including 300,000 Australians) and became the archetype of privacy abuse.

Facing global condemnation – not to mention a $US5 billion ($A7.3b) fine – Facebook has tried hard to spin itself as a champion of privacy.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg committed in May to doing better on privacy and promised “a major shift in how we run this company”.

Facebook’s praise of GDPR echoes the sentiments of the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has argued that the legislation should be extended globally.

Bringing the legislation to Australia would provide better outcomes than the DPI’s “substandard” proposed privacy reforms, Facebook’s submission said.

Those reforms would “reduce consumer welfare and reduce the significant efficiencies that targeted advertising has introduced for Australian advertisers and small businesses,” the company claimed.

“Recommendations with a consumer focus should be consistent with best practices from a privacy perspective and international developments in privacy law globally.”

Facebook is, it said, happy to work with the government on “smart regulation – regulation that is effective, proportionate, and is pro-innovation”.

Challenging recommendations

Overall, Facebook supported 15 of the 29 areas for action contained in the final report, provided in-principle support to five more, opposed five action items, and noted four more.

Facebook does not support the proposed requirement for advanced notice of acquisitions (Recommendation 2); strengthened consent requirements (16c) and elements of Recommendation 16 and 17 “that would depart from GDPR” and “seem designed to prohibit the delivery of targeted advertising in Australia”; establishment of the “potentially unhelpful” OAIC Privacy Code for Digital Platforms (Recommendation 18); and

Supported in principle were “the increase of expertise, capability and understanding within the Australian government…of our business and our industry” (Recommendation 4); and a review process for a review of the media regulatory framework “that reflects the evolving media landscape” (Recommendation 6).

Facebook supported the creation of a new Digital News Distributor Code (Recommendation 7) that, it said, would “effectively address concerns about potential adverse effects of algorithms and digital distribution services on news in Australia”.

The company also provided in-principle support for deeper engagement with the ACMA around reliability, trustworthiness and news source signals (Recommendation 14); and the creation of a disinformation code (Recommendation 15).

Yet Facebook repeatedly questioned the government’s privacy approach, warning that an overzealous definition of ‘personal information’ could be “wider than that used in the GDPR”.

“The devil is in the detail in how these are implemented”, Facebook said.

“We welcome the opportunity to work on these details with the Australian Government to address some of the big issues facing society in the digital age, and to get them right.”

“In doing so, we can create a new template for the internet that respects the rights of individuals to choose what happens to their data, encourages competition and innovation, and remains open and accessible for everyone.”