Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson interview with Narelle Graham on ABC Radio South Australia.
Subject: Digital platforms and small businesses
There's been an increase in complaints by small businesses, this is across all of Australia, against digital platform providers - 236 cases brought to the Small Business Ombudsman since July of 2020. It's the issue of fake reviews that's part of the problem. So I’ll put the call out. Have you had to deal with that in your small business?
Bruce Billson is Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. Bruce, good afternoon.
Narelle, awesome to be with you and your audience.
Any pattern to the types of complaints? We're talking quite a number aren’t we, 236 cases.
I mean the uptick is worrying but it also underlines just how important having a ready dispute resolution mechanism is. A small business may be reliant on their digital presence as their channel to their customers, the way they communicate, the real basis of their business finds that they might be locked out of that very platform for a range of reasons.
It could be a transaction that might have been viewed by the platform through its algorithms as not something it's happy about. It might have been a cyber attack, someone hacking into their account. Or it might just be a simple misunderstanding. And what can happen is you can get blocked out of the very account you need to have access to in order to engage the digital service platform about the challenge that you're having.
So, it's really quite frustrating. The way in which some of these dispute mechanisms work within the platform, assumes you've still got access to the platform, but many times it's a problem being locked out that is the cause of the issue in the first place. So that's the sort of thing that we're highlighting.
You are calling for digital platform providers to improve their dispute resolution processes. And you've outlined that beautifully. I mean, if you have a business and you’re locked out of your account because of something that the algorithm has picked up on, then you're in all sorts of strife, aren't you, as a small business. What would that improved process that you're advocating for, what would that look like?
To address that ultimate run around, which just drives people spare, a few things that we've recommended. One is the platform itself needs to have some ready guidance about what people can do to address problems that might arise. Now, that needs to deal with the fact that the platform itself might be blocking out the person, so they need another way in to actually say, ‘hey, I've got an issue here, can you please help me’.
Secondly, the platform themselves needs to have a way of dealing with disputed judgments that the platform may have exercised. In some cases they might just say, ‘oh, look, we just don't we don't deal with that sort of trade’ or ‘you haven't moved this stock for long enough, we decided to dispose of it, send you a bill for the destruction of it. Thanks very much. Have a great day’.
Or it might be where if you can't solve your problems through some of these digital channels, here’s a bold idea, Narelle, have a real human that someone can call.
Oh, my goodness, a real human.
Hold the phones, wouldn't that just knock people’s socks off. And if all of that fails, then we're a full back option where we have, as part of our relationship with these platforms, actually said, ‘look, give us a contact point, we want to sort these matters out in days if we can’, rather than some of the other options, which might be the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, or something like that could possibly take weeks and be quite expensive. We're a very nimble, cost efficient way of getting business back to business where they rely on these very platforms that they're having a challenge with.
So, to make those improvements, would politicians need to be involved in that? Are we talking about changes needing to be made to legislation to get digital platforms to make those changes? Or it could have been more simple than that?
It can be more simple than that. The ACCC has flagged to government with a series of recommendations that they should take certain steps and then encourage the digital service platforms to meet those expectations and then hopefully avoid the need for legislation.
Now beyond what we've just talked about, Narelle, it might be things like reviews that are just malicious. Now a business can be taken out and really challenged by a series of really bad reviews. Now our advice is always engage with the people that are making those assessments. But if they're absolutely spurious, if they are borne out of malice or one of the worrying things we're seeing is there's actually businesses out there that can generate a whole bunch of horrendous reviews, fake reviews, that can really damage the position of an established business as a way of opening the door for a new entrant.
So, you know, if Bruce and Narelle were running a garden supply business, we were doing great. And then someone else thought they might set up a business in a market that we're trying to service. They basically trash talk our business through a series of fake and malicious reviews that really harm our customer presence, our reputation and damage our business interests for no good reason other than malice. And so one of the other recommendations we've said once a platform is notified that such a malicious, unfounded review has been has been lodged, it should take action once it's been notified that that sort of spurious conduct is underway.
Because as you say, that could destroy business really, really quickly, a series of fake reviews. And really for you and I and our little garden supply business, it would only take somebody with five to 10 mates.
Well, I'll give you an example, Narelle, a frightening one. You might remember there was the so-called freedom convoy that came to Canberra and sort of had a range of issues that, you know, probably best for us not to get into. But essentially they clagged up the Capital, left vehicles in the road, and then the police directed that the vehicles be moved. So local towing contractors who were just doing what the police was asking of them in accordance with the law, then were subject to the most horrendous abuse online, similar to businesses that were honouring COVID requirements. I mean, if people had a truck with those COVID requirements, well, take those up with the health authorities and the government. Don't take them up with the businesses that were simply doing what was required of them by the law.
Now, they are examples where we worked effectively with those digital service platform providers to identify reviews being posted by people, or let's call them digital presences that normally don't involve in these sorts of things. So it wasn't that difficult to identify that there was something on here and it wasn't a fair and reasonable assessment of the service that those businesses were providing.
Bruce, thank you. Always a good brain to pick. Thank you Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.