The growing Cambridge Analytica scandal involving 50 million Facebook accounts triggered a multi-billion dollar sell-off on Wall Street on Monday — with the value of Facebook falling by nearly 7%, its largest one day fall in five and a half years. The prices of other tech heavies, such as Alphabet (Google), Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix also fell because of investor fears the Facebook story would see closer supervision and regulation of social media, especially in Europe. 

Suddenly the ACCC inquiry on the media impact of platforms such as Facebook and Google, done at the Turnbull government’s behest, is starting to look so 2017.

Clearly the issue, so far as Wall Street investors are concerned, has moved beyond ones of growth in ad revenues and profits for these giants, to one of tougher regulation inhibiting or stopping that growth. It’s not the fact that Cambridge Analytica may or may have not done something wrong, it’s the fear that the currently unfettered ability of Facebook and Google (and other tech heavy stocks) to make money with impunity might be curtailed.

Certainly US investors saw no winners from Facebook’s problems, as US media stocks also fell overnight. News Corp was down 1.5%, 21st Century Fox was off 1%, The New York Times lost 1.25%, Comcast was down 1.5%, Disney shares were off 1.3%, Charter Communications (the second biggest cable group in the US) lost 2.7% and Gannett, the major newspaper owner saw its shares off nearly 1%. If investors had seen this as a problem solely for Facebook and perhaps Google, Apple and Amazon, you would have expected the media shares to have perhaps suffered smaller losses or small rises as investors punted on the tightening of regulation (if it happens) slowing the loss or reversing the flow of revenues from established media to these platforms.

Instead of all this, the ACCC inquiry has been tasked to look at the “impact of digital search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms on the state of competition in media and advertising services markets”.

An issues paper detailed the terms of reference:

The extent to which platform service providers are exercising market power in commercial arrangements with the creators of journalistic content and advertisers; the impact of platform service providers on the level of choice and quality of news and journalistic content to consumers; the impact of platform service providers on media and advertising markets; the impact of longer-term trends, including innovation and technological change, on competition in media and advertising markets, and the impact of information asymmetry between platform service providers, advertisers and consumers and the effect on competition in media and advertising markets.

And the ACCC said the inquiry:

… may lead to a range of outcomes, including but not limited to: findings regarding structural, competitive or behavioural issues in the relevant markets; increased information about competition, pricing and other practices in the supply of online news and journalistic content and advertising services to Australian consumers; improved transparency for Australian consumers regarding media, advertising services, and news and journalistic content on digital platforms; ACCC action to address any behaviour that raises concerns under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, and Recommendations to the Government for law or policy change.

Not a word on data retention and use by these platforms or others, such as media companies and political parties. Data retention and its use/misuse is arguably a much bigger danger than the impact of Facebook or Google on news.

The biggest beneficiaries of the ACCC inquiry and any government action will be wealthy people such as the Murdoch family (News Corp papers, Sky News and Foxtel and radio stations owned by Lachlan Murdoch) and Kerry Stokes (Seven Network and newspapers and magazines, especially in Perth where Stokes’ outlets are the dominant voice). This inquiry will look at helping them as much as helping other more widely-owned media groups such as Fairfax Media, Nine Entertainment or Southern Cross.

Meanwhile, overseas, the debate has moved on to a much bigger, more sensitive issue. It’s one the political parties don’t want you to know about: what they know about you.

Peter Fray

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