4-Corners program on the dominance of Amazon raises more doubt on e-commerce trade deals

April 7, 2020: The ABC TV 4-Corners program on April 6, 2020, Amazon: What They Know About Us focused on the impact of Amazon Marketplace and the use of data to create a powerful global monopoly.

4-Corners was re-broadcasting a BBC Panorama program screened in the UK on February 17, 2020.

The program showed how Amazon home devices that listen and respond to questions (Alexa) can now record private conversations. These can be used as a stream of personal data to be analysed and sold for marketing even more products at individuals. In addition to privacy breaches and abuse of data the program also exposed very serious anti-competitive practices, which have enabled the company achieve a near-monopoly market dominance in marketing many products.

The obvious conclusion is that government needs to investigate and possibly regulate these practices, but e-commerce trade deals, promoted by the Australian government, are heading in the opposite direction.

Australia is co-sponsoring a WTO plurilateral negotiation on e-commerce and has also concluded a new,Digital Economy Agreement with Singapore which are both heavily influenced by the big tech companies.

The Singapore DEA will deregulate cross-border data flows and could reduce the ability of both current and future governments to regulate big tech companies in the public interest. This is despite a series of scandals about data privacy and anti-competitive practices by those companies and despite current and emerging recommendations from the Australian Consumer & Competition Commission (ACCC) report which recommended more, not less, regulation of the big tech companies.

In February 2020, AFTINET made a submission about these negotiations which is here. An oped which summarises the issues is here. We must ensure that trade agreements do not prevent governments from regulating to protect the public interest.

One example of regulation required to protect privacy is the 2018 European Union General Data Protection Regulation. The California Consumer Privacy Act, which came into force on January 1, 2020, has similar but slightly different provisions.

Under the new California law, about 500,000 companies must now provide a consumer with a copy of their data a maximum of twice a year, the consumer can specify on a button on the company website “Do Not Sell My Personal Information”, and can have data deleted. A company cannot discriminate against consumers who delete data or opt out.

The GDPR applies similar measures to all companies, but does not have such an explicit “opt out” feature as the CCPA. The GDPR has severe penalties for companies which breach the new regulations, but CPPA has very light fines.

The tech companies are fighting back against such regulation, as well as promoting deregulatory trade rules. Facebook, Google, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon all donated $200,000 to create a $1m fund to oppose the California Consumer Privacy Act.