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Australia to police tech giants’ algorithms

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The tech giants have recently faced increased pressure from regulators

Australian regulators plan to launch the world’s first office dedicated to scrutinising algorithms used by tech giants such as Facebook and Google.

The idea is to reveal how these companies match adverts to users.

A new, special branch of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is to carry out the work.

The announcement came just days after US authorities announced separate plans to investigate the tech giants.

“These companies are among the most powerful and valuable in the world,” said Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

“They need to be held to account and their activities need to be more transparent.”

He said it was time that people had a clearer understanding of how the tech giants’ algorithms worked. Usually, the specifics of algorithms – calculations used by computers to make decisions – are closely guarded commercial secrets.

Researchers have, in the past, claimed that Google’s algorithms, for example, deliberately prioritise its own adverts in search results.

The new ACCC branch was just one recommendation in a recent report from the commission. It also advocated strengthening privacy laws and establishing a code of conduct to restrict how tech firms profit from user content.

A 12-week consultation process on the proposals is now under way, after which the Australian government can act on it.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the regulator was currently running five separate investigations into Facebook and Google.

He called for “a lot more transparency and oversight” of the two companies and added that breaking them up remained a possibility.

Both firms said they would engage with regulators.

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