There are some questions that have no answers, like ‘What shape would cotton buds be if we had three ears?’ Others have answers most of us could not get our heads around like ‘If we live in an expanding universe, as astrophysicists say, what is it expanding into?’

For others, the answer is simple, but you don’t bother with it.  Try: ‘If we can use social media platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram Twitter or TikTok for nothing, who is paying to run the platforms?’

If you read a city newspaper in its print edition, you are likely to have come across full page advertisements that throw light on the answer to this question. They have been placed by Google as part of a strategy adopted by Google last year. 

Two years ago the ACCC handed down the final report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry.

Some of the elements of the report of that inquiry to ‘consider the impact of online search engines, social media and digital content aggregators (digital platforms) on competition in the media and advertising services markets’ will change the way social media platforms, especially Google and Facebook, do business. And they don’t like it.  

The government legislated for a news media bargaining code last February, but allowed Google and Facebook time to put in place agreements to meet the code.  But they don’t like the idea of paying for content they take from Australian media and are manoeuvring to minimise the impact on Australian profits. 

Google Google

The Google ads are one manoeuvre. Here are a couple of recent examples, full pages in the SMH and the Age.

‘Today Google blocked 100 million phishing attempts, keeping scammers out of your inbox’.  Putting aside the puffery that the whole 100 million were aimed at your personal inbox, the message is clear and simple: we are your friend with your best interests at heart.

But what are the implications of this: ‘Today Google secured over 1.5 billion inboxes, so that secret recipes stay in the family’?  Don’t be distracted by the folksy image of a grandma consigning her famous chicken recipe to her daughter, via Gmail, to be shared with the grandchildren one day.

They are talking about all the information that you and Google share.  Thus Google has stewardship of stories of 1.5 billion lives, secret, famous or notorious, or just plain mundane.  It doesn’t matter. That is the honey pot of knowledge that pays for your access and drives Google’s share price and profits. It’s good that Google recognises its responsibility to safeguard your privacy, but no data storage is absolutely hacker proof, no information put online is absolutely safe.

Another ad reminds us that Google put you and businesses in touch all the time. So, Google really does oil the wheels of modern life and, just think, it does it for free!

Who’s The Target?

But here is the strange thing: you are not the real target of the ads.  The real target is our political leaders, especially at the Commonwealth level.  Google wants you to know that they are the good guys and remember that when the government talks about further regulating them or imposing new taxes and obligations.

All the search engines and social media platforms collect information about you and use it to select the advertisements that appear on their sites for you, so maximising the potential that you will purchase goods or services from that advertiser.


That same knowledge about every user is the secret of TikTok’s success. If you use TikTok, you know it is quite addictive, feeding up videos that just hit the spot. It can do that because it probably knows you better than you consciously know yourself.  And that knowledge is money to TikTok. 

But there is another dividend for the social media platforms in having access to all that personal information. Considered collectively, the information can be used to detect patterns of thinking in classes of users and social trends in their community, and the potential to use that knowledge to redirect such patterns.

That was one reason why former US President Donald Trump campaigned to bring TikTok’s operations outside China, under US control. US security agencies had concerns about what TikTok’s owners – the Bejing-based ByteDance – was learning about US teenagers and how that could have strategic value to the Chinese government. In fact, today, ByteDance know more about teenagers across the entire world than any organisation in history, and there is power in that knowledge.

Media Savvy

And Trump would know the power of social media.  His successful 2016 US presidential race used insights gleaned by a company called Cambridge Analytica from Facebook data, gained in dubious circumstances, to shape entire marketing strategies for the campaign.

Taken to extremes, this gathering of information about individuals and communities can stifle freedom.  The Chinese social credit system show how this information can be used. Citizens are penalised for any infraction, any questioning, of the Communist Party’s edicts, by the loss of what are regarded as privileges, like airline travel, or work advancement. 

So it is disturbing that some state governments in Australia plan to use similar techniques to supervise home quarantining. NSW Tourism Minister Stuart Ayres said it was a critical step in phasing out hotel quarantine.

“[The NSW trial] will build on the evidence collected through the South Australian trial as part of the national plan where we utilise technology, particularly facial recognition and location-based services apps on your phone, to allow police and health to continue to check in on a person during their home-based quarantine,” he said. However Ayres made no mention of whether the data will be erased after its specific purpose is satisfied, though the SA government has promised to delete the data at the end of the lock-down.

Similar concerns have been raised about the uses of QR code check-in data for purposes other than Covid-19 contact tracing.  Police in WA, Queensland and Victoria have sought to use QR location data in criminal investigations, raising the concerns of the Australian Information Commissioner, Angelene Falk. The Commission’s advice is clear: “Only the minimum amount of information permitted under the relevant public health order can be collected and the information can only be used for contact tracing purposes, unless otherwise required by, or authorised under law.” 

At present there are no laws allowing the use of check-in data in law enforcement and NSW, South Australia and the Northern Territory have ruled out its use by police.

These are the realities of our social media world.  It is a world dominated in trade, not of iron ore or food, but trade in knowledge, the profiles of individuals and entire populations.  Anti-vaxxers fear that the Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips that will be used to control us (they don’t). There is no need.  Data from social media use is all that’s needed.

Abuse or Opportunity

It is the great challenge of the 21st century for democratic governments, everywhere, to find the legal and social mechanisms that will allow societies to harvest the benefits of social media platforms and the new technologies, without allowing the abuse of the vast stores of personal data, accumulated daily, and those abuses becoming a straitjacket to well-being, freedom and the opportunity to innovate and experiment.

It is a challenge that we, individually and collectively, must hold them to.  If we don’t, governments won’t. It is not in the nature of government to show that much initiative when it comes to relinquishing power. 

Vincent O’Donnell

Media Analyst and Researcher

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