THE DISTILLERY: Google getaway

Writers weigh in on the ACCC's Google verdict, with one noting discrepancies in rules for online and traditional advertising outlets.

The consumer watchdog may have secured word from the High Court that Google is a medium for advertisers in a similar way to traditional sources of media like newspapers. However, newspapers are normally left untouched when a misleading advertisement lands. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission searched for evidence that Google actually assisted with a misleading advertisement. They’ve come up empty handed and two of Australia’s leading business commentators give their two cents.

Fairfax’s Elizabeth Knight explains how there were some slight, but important, differences between the behaviour of Google as an advertiser, where misleading content is deemed the responsibility of the advertising company, and newspapers.

"Some companies were paying for ads on Google via sponsored links using the names of competitors. For example, a Google search of Harvey World Travel produced a sponsored link to a website of STA travel. This behaviour was found to be misleading. The grey area arises because in some of the instances laid out in the ACCC case, evidence suggests that account managers from Google had been involved in advising or assisting advertisers on the addition of keywords to the ‘AdWord’ accounts and that these formed part of what was deemed misleading.”

As The Australian’s John Durie explains, the ACCC went looking for a conspiracy where there was none, adding that another case involving TPG speaks to the consumer watchdog’s feeling on the ability of the individual consumer.

"In the TPG case, the ACCC is primarily worried about the Full Court's attempts to talk down the penalties for misleading and deceptive conduct – which explains its attempted High Court appeal. It is arguing TPG was misleading in not making clear that to get broadband for $29.99 a month you need to have $30 a month. The Full Court thought that was a given. Consumer protection is the very essence of what the ACCC does. Promoting competition and preventing market abuse is all about ensuring competition is allowed to deliver better consumer outcomes. This explains why it is doing its best to ensure maximum flexibility under section 52, which outlaws misleading and deceptive conduct. But the courts are working from the assumption consumers can look after themselves better than the ACCC thinks. In Google it said the company neither endorsed nor adapted the advertisements so the search engine behemoth should be left alone.”

The other big issue this morning is Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s clever backdown on taxing superannuation withdrawals for the wealthy. The Australian Financial Review’s Jennifer Hewett explains that it was simply too risky politically.

"She said firmly that the government would not change its 2010 policy of "never” taxing super withdrawals for those over 60. But this was actually a very deliberate and considered new message, following a decision by senior ministers earlier that morning… Suddenly, it was destined to become the idea that never was. The impact is still reverberating through an industry that had been gearing itself up for a massive fight on the issue.”

Everyone still expects the Labor Party to raise money from superannuation in the lead up to the next election, but many business commentators are pleading with Gillard to exercise extreme caution. Let’s start with Fairfax’s Malcolm Maiden, who concedes that there will be incursions.

"There has to be a limit to these incursions. The superannuation system that grew out of the deal struck in the Hawke-Keating government's first wages and prices accord with the ACTU in 1985 is worth protecting. It should be fine-tuned, but not raided just to fund an attack on a deficit problem that is largely illusory. Australia has a debt overhang, but it is in households, not on the Commonwealth's balance sheet: household debt, secured against residential property in the main, outweighs government debt in this country by a ratio of about 10 to 1.”

The Australian’s economics editor David Uren is similarly worried that Gillard risks a great deal simply to improve a budget at a time when borrowing rates are at record lows.

"Any attempt to raise the sort of money that would make a meaningful difference to the budget outlook by reducing the concessionality of retirement savings would undermine one of the great policy triumphs of the past 30 years. Treasury's annual statement on tax concessions is useful in making politicians focus on the cost of a vast array of tax breaks embedded in the system but it is in no sense a budget document.

The Australian’s Glenda Korporaal observes that a growing number of middle-class Australians are taking their retirement savings very seriously, which was the aim of the superannuation system – which the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments have contributed to – to begin with.

"But having being gifted a new generation of proactive savers, the Gillard government now has an growing class of people wary of its motives, confused and angry as they try to work out the ever-changing rules of the game, with more at stake than ever before.”

And Business Spectator’s Robert Gottliebsen adds for good measure that if you’re looking for costly superannuation system, try parliament.

In Reserve Bank of Australia news, Fairfax’s Michael Pascoe writes that the latest retail figures have made the Reserve Bank’s decision to sit on rates – made just the day before – look just a little brave. The Australian Financial Review’s markets and economics writer David Bassanese says you can throw building approvals in there as well.

The Herald Sun’s Terry McCrann on the other hand rather wisely urges his readers not to get caught up in the month-to-month movements of Australian Bureau of Statistics numbers.

Admittedly, McCrann speaks more to the labour force data to be released today. The retail numbers that Pascoe refers to have been flat month-to-month for 12 months. But you take McCrann’s point; the Reserve Bank has to look forward.

The Australian’s Paul Cleary suggests that the Reserve Bank’s weighting of energy prices in the inflation measure doesn’t take into account the severe pain that energy-intensive industries are going through. Is its focus too narrow, the writer asks?

In company news, The Australian’s Richard Gluyas says National Australia Bank shareholders will be hoping the fourth placed lender can break out of its seven consecutive quarters of $1.4 billion profits.

In international affairs, The Australian’s Asia Pacific editor Rowan Callick explains that the integration of East Asia is facing a myriad of challenges, the latest of which is Japan’s decision to devalue its currency. This places the subdued economic superpower on a collision course with fellow high-end manufacturers South Korea and Taiwan.

And The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd points out that the number of women in senior management ranks in Norway, where a 40 per cent boardroom quota was enacted in 2008, has remained pretty much stagnant at 10 per cent.

Judging by this experience, the argument that women in the boardroom encourage organisational change for a more gender-neutral staff allocation doesn’t hold up.

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