The social network’s backers are determined to maintain a high profile in Australia – so media covers them even when they do not exist
The media is packed with allegations about Facebook’s possible links to terrorism, the company making billions in profit while its users suffer the consequences, and disputes about censorship.
Yet while these stories dominate the headlines, Google, Facebook’s new owner, is proving to be a thornier problem.
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The 2017 Australian government “Google raid”, in which nearly 40 government officials looked into the privacy practices of the company, served notice that Australia was yet to find an entity more powerful.
Google dominates the Australian market – 70% of search queries on desktop use Google, 65% on mobile, and 52% in Australia. And while other new entrants are attempting to win market share, it’s hard to find any rival.
The process that led to an inquiry into the company followed the revelation that Google had provided Google maps access to a law enforcement agency. The agreement meant data on where vehicles were registered could be shared with NSW police for use during Operation Feed, which searched for amphetamines and cannabis in NSW.
The backlash was significant, and exposed a concerning trend. In the wake of increased scrutiny from the company, and greater scrutiny from regulatory bodies, Google has responded by increasing the prominence of its boss.
Tim Cook and Sergey Brin may be more important than Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
The most prominent man the company has had to answer for is, well, none other than its senior executive, Tim Cook.
Cook is arguably Google’s biggest card in Australia. He is the figurehead of Apple, the biggest moneymaker in the country.
With more than two-thirds of people owning a mobile device, Cook spends his time ensuring that Australia is a prime market for Apple, and that it sells the most smartphones, tablets and iPads, and most popular operating systems.
At Apple’s store in Sydney, customers stream in to get hands-on with Apple’s expensive new products, admire its products, and potentially spend money on accessories or cases.
Cook has the benefit of Google’s lobbying machine – one which, after lobbying against the government’s terms of reference, delayed the formal inquiry. With other Google rivals such as Microsoft, Telstra and Amazon lobbying, Google’s lobbyists have also been on the road to met prime ministers and discuss its business interests.
Despite a lack of control of Google, people have always considered its CEO, Sergey Brin, as important in setting the tone and direction of the company.
One of the most egregious examples of this occurred in 2017 when Quartz reported that Brin asked journalists to ignore stories critical of the company because he thought they were “problematic”.
After Brin’s request, the Guardian ran a story which said the company would not use the AI “cognitive assistant” Duplex to perform personal tasks, and would not run an app for that same purpose.
That article, and others, were the subject of boycotts and protests at Apple Stores, and it’s widely known that the company had internal discussions over the matter.
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On Wednesday, the Guardian revealed that the Guardian faced internal difficulties with how it published the 539 secret documents revealed by Snowden.
The papers, which have made their way to Guardian Australia via an anonymous partner, will be a treasure trove for journalists and academics who have long sought a complete chronology of the classified documents provided by Snowden.
They reveal a world of surveillance and surveillance techniques that would be very uncomfortable to see, with many revelations about offensive methods applied to Americans, along with criticism of the CIA and American diplomatic activity.
The documents, which have been known since their publication in April 2016, were originally subject to US law. The Guardian’s partnership with the Guardian US meant that after another coalition of journalists agreed to publish the documents, the NSA agreed to lift the ban on publication.
In recent years there have been controversies about the partnership, with CIA director Gina Haspel reportedly speaking out to complain about the strategy.
As the Guardian reported this week, the Guardian now has separate editorial and commercial partnerships with Google, Facebook and Amazon. The Guardian’s head of journalism Andrew Sparrow has been in Australia since Monday looking into whether the relationship with Google would be a problem for the company.
The relationship between Google and Facebook and Microsoft has also run into questions from media and campaigners about censorship of politically contentious topics, and whether the two companies have expanded the reach of the Chinese internet and censored Western political ideas.