Friday, September 14, 2012

Can foreign digital gatekeepers unduly influence democracy?

One of the perils of the digital age, as traditional media goes digital or goes downhill and more and more people rely on the internet for their daily news, is that countries such as Australia are losing 'editorial' control over what news is promoted as the 'top stories' each day or what links appear at the top of search results.

Most of Australia's most trafficked websites are not Australian-owned and run. Some do not even have a legal entity or physical presence in the country, making it extremely difficult for Australian interests to get any kind of traction in decision-making processes or ensure that Australian values and perspectives are reflected.

Even more worrying, we've already begun to see digital 'gatekeepers' - the largest and most influential websites - begin to impose conditions which may distort elections or inappropriately influence democratic processes.

Let me give you an example. You're probably aware that Google is the most trafficked website in Australia, followed by Facebook. In fact for the week of 8 September 2012, Experian Hitwise reported that Google Australia received 149.5 million visits from Australians, and Facebook received 96.8 million visits. These were followed by Youtube at 47 million, Windows Live Mail at 23 million and which received 21.7 million Australian visits.

The top locally operated website, NineMSN received only 20 million visits. Yahoo7 received only 11 million visits from Australians.

In fact, if you add Google's top 10 sites (218.2 million visits) and Facebook, the total visits these two organisations receive from Australians, each week, is about 315 million. That's ten times the combined weekly traffic of NineMSN and Yahoo7 at 31 million.

With that level of traffic, being refused the right to advertise in Google or Facebook could have serious repercussions for a brand. In some cases it could destroy companies.

So what could it do to democracy?

What would happen if Google and/or Facebook decided, for whatever reason, to reject all the advertising from a particular political party in Australia, banning ads for that party in their sites during an election?

Well, actually, we don't need to speculate about this scenario. It's already happened.

Some of you might be aware that during the last Commonwealth election that Google refused to run any advertising for one of Australia's legal political parties - the Sex Party.

Following this, Google again refused to run any Sex Party ads during the recent Victorian byelection.

Facebook joined in by rejecting Sex Party ads during the recent Sydney City Council election.

Now whether you support or oppose the Sex Party's views, they are a legitimate Australian political party and field legitimate candidates in elections. However both Facebook and Google decided, citing different reasons, that they would not accept any advertising from the Sex Party during election campaigns.

Facebook said its reason was that the Sex Party was "promoting adult products or services".

Google claimed that the Sex Party was being deceptive by having a "donate" button on its site which "breached its rules which prevent solicitation of donations by a website that did not display tax exempt status.". 

When it was pointed out that the Greens, Family First and Labor all did the same thing, Google stuck to their guns. Even when the Sex Party adjusted their site's content to include the tax exempt status, Google continued to refuse to run ads - contrary to their own policies. Only when the Sex Party went to the media did Google relent, on the eve of the election when the opportunity to influence votes had been lost.

In this case the party was a minor one and potentially the events didn't change the outcome, although the Sex Party has taken Google to court over the matter alleging unlawful interference in the election.

This example highlight a risk democracy is facing. 

When 'media' providers control such a large chunk of the online market, when these are domiciled overseas in state that wish to influence Australian politics, and when they can thumb their noses at local concerns without significant legal or financial cost, democracy has a problem.

It doesn't have to be a full-out blocking of ads or comments - as happened in the example above. Instead it could be more subtle techniques. 

Such as placing ads lower down on the page than their competing parties, thereby reducing the probability of a click, it could involve adjusting search results to keep certain ideas at the top, or the bottom. It could even involve 'reporting errors' which would convince people that they'd received the impressions they'd paid for when they hadn't.

There's many other subtle ways to influence behaviour online, and you can be assured that companies like Google and Facebook have built a strong understanding of how to do this. It is their bread and butter and they are testing, trialling and learning more all the time.

So can digital gatekeepers unduly influence the outcomes of democracy processes? 

I think yes. And, intentionally or not, the big players have already demonstrated that they are capable of taking this step. 

But maybe not quite yet, while nations still have robust national media and competing theatres for ideas.

In the future we are likely to see the balance of power unfold in new ways, and learn through practice whether democracy will survive technology intact, enhanced or destroyed.

However it is already clear that democracy will not survive unchanged.

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