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US thinktank linked to Google donations criticised ‘problematic’ ACCC digital media inquiry | Australia news

3 min read

An American thinktank funded partly by undisclosed donations from Google tried to convince Australia’s competition watchdog not to regulate the media giant during a landmark digital platforms inquiry.

The Global Antitrust Institute, a thinktank based at Virginia’s George Mason University, last year submitted a strident, 24-page condemnation of preliminary findings made by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission during its world-leading inquiry into digital platforms.

The ACCC inquiry examined the vast market power amassed by Google and Facebook and recommended new regulation to improve competition, reduce damage to traditional media, and better protect consumers.

In a submission last year, the Global Antitrust Institute argued at length against any such regulation and disparaged the ACCC’s work.

It argued the ACCC’s preliminary findings suffered from “systematic shortcomings”, were “problematic”, lacked relevant evidence and research, and appeared “to abandon solutions and concepts focused on the welfare of consumers and to [favour] rent-seeking by various interest groups”.

“Perhaps the most problematic of those policy recommendations is the establishment of a new regulatory body to oversee Google’s and Facebook’s pricing decisions and algorithmic choices affecting advertisers, news, and journalism,” the institute wrote. “The Report does not itself establish – nor even seek to establish – that digital platforms such as Google and Facebook are misusing their market power or violating Australian competition laws.”

“Given the systematic shortcomings in the evidence gathered and presented, we believe the recommendations should be reconsidered in drafting the Final Report.”

Last week, the New York Times revealed that the institute was partly funded by Google and other big tech companies. The New York Times also reported that antitrust officials from Australia were treated to expensive dinners and wine during a California trip mostly paid for by the institute.

The Guardian has separately confirmed that Google is a donor to the institute.

Google has publicly declared donations to George Mason University, through the university’s foundation and its law and economic centre, of which the institute was initially a part.

Google’s disclosures make no direct mention of the Global Antitrust Institute. The Guardian understands Google is considering whether it needs to update its disclosures to reflect organisational changes made since its initial grant.

The institute’s submission to the ACCC similarly makes no mention of the Google donations, despite it arguing at length against regulating the digital giant.

The Guardian is not suggesting the authors of the submission were directly influenced by the Google donations, only that they were not disclosed.

The institute was approached for comment but did not respond.

An ACCC spokeswoman said the watchdog was aware of the institute’s links to Google, but said:

“We do generally encourage all parties making public submissions to our inquiries to disclose any relevant financial ties.”

On its website, the institute says it has a range of donors, but that they do not exert influence over its reports or review or approve their contents.

“Donations allow us to hire staff, cover overhead, and associated expenses from programs, events, and institutes and in furtherance of our mission to promote the application of sound economic analysis to competition enforcement around the world through economic education programs, competition advocacy, events, and hosting visiting scholars,” the institute’s website says. “The GAI does not accept donations or support that would limit our ability to carry out our mission and core values in a manner we see fit–free of external influence.”

“The GAI’s economic education materials and competition advocacy submissions are generated by GAI faculty and staff and are not subject to review or approval by donors.”

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