A public-owned, “public-purpose social network” run by the national broadcaster should be developed to lessen Australia’s reliance on Google and Facebook, a think tank has proposed as the tech giants threaten to hold back local services.

Facebook has threatened to stop Australian users from sharing news stories on its platform if the government’s planned news media bargaining mechanism – which allows commercial news publishers to seek payment from platforms for the use of their content – becomes law.

Google has also railed against the proposed rules, known as the News Media Bargaining Code and expected to be introduced to parliament this year, arguing the rules would threaten its “free” services in Australia. Last week Google said it was holding back a new US$1 billion high quality news service in Australia because of the code.

The tech giants’ threats, and in the case of Google a public campaign to undermine the code, place in stark relief Australia’s national reliance on the major platforms, according to The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.

The progressive think tank today released a report based on a roundtable with industry leaders warning that the reliance on two US companies “poses economic, social and sovereignty risks to Australia”.

It recommends the Australian government develop a National Risk Mitigation Strategy to deal with the over reliance, including fast tracking consumer and privacy protections, auditing government’s reliance on individual technology providers, and developing an ABC run social network that does not track and monetise user data.

“This analysis shows that two global corporations that play a dominant role in our civic and commercial institutions are prepared to threaten to withdraw those services to protect their own commercial self-interest,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.

“The platforms have a history of bullying government. Google closed its news service in Spain in 2014 and Facebook is currently threatening to pull its entire service from Ireland in the face of regulation.

“Whether or not they make good on their threats, it is incumbent on all Australians to ensure we are not in a position where we are held hostage to their commercial interests.

‘Rampant’ misinformation threat

The report analyses some of the possible scenarios resulting from the News Media Bargaining Code, including if the tech giants follow through on their threats.

The most likely, according to the report, are for Google to withdraw its news service in Australia and for Facebook to remove news publishing and sharing for Australian users.

While the experts expect the market and audiences would likely adjust to the disruption of Google removing its news service, Facebook pulling news content would be “very concerning”.

“[There is] potential for Mis/Disinformation torun rampant without the balance of accurate news

to counter it,” the report states. “Small publishers most affected, major news readers will likely adjust.”

Risk mitigation alternatives

According to the report, continued regulation and the fast tracking of more consumer and privacy protections are the best options for mitigating the risks posed by the digital duopoly.

Alternatives to Facebook and Google are possible but to get past the inherent problems of surveillance capitalism the report suggests platforms with a different business model.

Privacy focused commercial alternatives are already growing in popularity, the report says, and publicly funded platforms without a reliance on monetising users and their data could also be a viable alternative to Facebook.

The report recommends the ABC  extend its existing its online capabilities by adding distinct user profiles, user publishing, groups, chat and commenting features.

“The ABC could provide an online platform for community groups, politics, sport, arts and faith to connect and share,” the report states.

“An online community network could facilitate citizen town halls and local group sessions which could serve as valuable community feedback and engagement tools for politicians, local councils and civic groups.”

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