Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths are powerful. In 2018, the average time spent on social media per day for an internet user was 136 minutes. If you think that’s alarming, consider that your average Australian spends 9.4 hours each day in front of an electronic screen. Combine the time you spend eating, travelling, working and being physically active each day, and you still haven’t hit 9.4 hours. These firms aren’t only harvesting your precious minutes, but also terabytes of your personal data.
But this piece doesn’t lament the inexorable rise of tech in our daily lives. These tech firms are behaving just as we would hope that they would in our Capitalist world – serving a previously underserved human desire (in this case, the desire for social connection). Instead, this article accepts this seismic shift in human behaviour, and implores lawmakers and the public to anticipate and mitigate the unintended negative consequences of our newfound obsession.
Legislation is notoriously reactive rather than proactive. The Christchurch terror attack is a prime example of this. The livestreamed slaughter of 51 people was available on Facebook for around 70 minutes before finally being removed. A number of students at this very college were able to casually scroll through the gunman’s ‘manifesto’ via social platforms just hours after the news broke. And how did Facebook respond to this devastatingly slow response? By introducing a ‘one strike rule’ which bans streamers who breach Facebook’s terms. That’s a start – now every psychopath can only get away with streaming just one mass shooting. Jacinda Ardern was quick to commend the move, but noted that it was only a start. Australia swiftly introduced a bill which sought to criminalise a response as slow as this, but unfortunately, this untested solution to a very foreseeable problem came too late.
Tech companies’ gross unfulfillment of their social responsibility is compounded by a regulatory framework which encourages their monopolisation. Instead of expanding Australia’s old ‘75% capped audience reach rule’ from commercial TV to social media, the Turnbull government obliterated this rule altogether, removing the shackles on traditional media companies and simultaneously encouraging the anti-competitive dominance of US tech firms. Google Search commands an Australian market share of 95.05% - a figure which the ACCC would take issue with were it any other industry. The ACCC recently blocked the proposed TPG-Vodafone merger on the grounds that three companies (Telstra, Optus and Vodafone) having 87% mobile services market share was already too high. Arguably, the monopolisation of search has more far-reaching consequences than the monopolisation of mobile services. Search acts as our gateway to the internet. Seldom do we look past page one of our search results, we simply rely on Google to have accurately informed us of the most relevant content at the top of our search. We’ll never know if Google’s top-secret algorithms are arbitrarily promoting content which they wish to feed to the world.
It is yet to be seen how much of the ACCC’s recently concluded 19-month investigation into the negative impact of digital platforms on Australian journalism will be taken on board by the government.
Rumblings from presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in the US seem to indicate that radical plans to break up the tech giants might even be on the table. This would be a decisive move in preventing these companies from becoming ‘too big to fail’ in a way that we thought was only possible for a Global Systemically Important Bank, but such a move would simultaneously quash US entrepreneurialism at its finest.
Competition law aside, privacy law is another under-legislated area which could use an update. At common law there is no general right to privacy – a far cry from the widely held belief of millennials that privacy is a ‘human right’. Contrary to popular belief, younger people don’t care less about their online privacy. Research has found that younger people simply have greater self-confidence in being able to completely control their online data, and therefore are more comfortable in the digital age. Whether this control is founded in fact is questionable. As Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal went to show, 87 million Americans seemed unaware that their data (including many peoples’ messages) had been harvested and paid for to support the Trump, Cruz and Brexit campaigns. Australian privacy law currently focuses more on how corporations must use consumer data rather than mandating how they ought to protect it. Reforms which address the latter point have been recommended by the ACCC.
A more rigid regulatory framework is all well and good, but where real change will be felt is in people’s day-to-day attitudes towards what they see online.
Boomers often talk about how glad they are that photos from their teenage delinquency aren’t pasted across online boards. These days, children who’ve grown up with their lives closely documented on the internet have entered adulthood. Some of these adults are entering progressively more senior roles in the workforce. It seems as if almost every Gen-Z is sitting on a ticking time bomb of defamatory content, littered throughout an online identity which is too big to control. If one were to have a perverse incentive to seriously inhibit the career of a Gen-Z, it would not be very difficult.
The Court of Popular Opinion is quite well accustomed to what one might term ‘Boomer sins’. Think Bill Shorten’s extra-marital child with then secret partner Chloe Bryce. That didn’t affect his ability to run for office. Adultery is as old as the Ten Commandments after all. We’ve seen enough politicians embroiled in similar scandals to not bat an eyelid. Contrast this to Luke Creasey, Labor’s promising candidate for the seat of Melbourne in the 2019 Federal Election. An ‘overly attached girlfriend’ meme reading ‘Hey I just met you, if you don’t date me, you’ll go to prison, I’ll say you raped me’ was clumsily shared on his account seven years prior at the age of 22. The candidate was abruptly unendorsed for this temporary and forgotten lapse in judgment. It’s a shame that social media didn’t exist to capture a record of Mr Shorten’s banter at 22 years of age. Mr Creasey is now back in his old job of teaching – a profession where such a fraught social media history is acceptable, at least for now. It seems that Trump’s online antics are yet to desensitise the fiercely puritan scrutiny of the Australian public.
As the world becomes more replete with consumer technology and our daylight hours are more consumed by our handheld devices, our law must keep up. With a little bit more thought, our policymakers can challenge themselves to anticipate the problems we will face tomorrow. As the men and women of St Andrew’s transition into full time careers, they too will play a pivotal role in shaping how our society grapples with these issues. Along the way, let’s hope that society might also become more introspective and less indiscriminately critical as our collective online past is brought out into the daylight.