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Profiling the Australian Google Consumer: Implications of Search Engine Practices for Consumer Law and Policy

Abstract

Against the legal backdrop of proceedings against Google in various jurisdictions regarding the layout of its search result page, this article presents the results of a survey of a representative sample of 1014 Australian consumers, investigating their use of the Internet and specifically Google’s search engine, and the implications of these findings for consumer law and policy concerning the operation of search engines. The study is the first of its kind in Australia, despite litigation against Google in this jurisdiction for alleged misleading and deceptive conduct. The survey findings indicate that consumers have a lack of understanding about the operation and origin of the different elements of the Google search engine. In particular, the findings show particular confusion in relation to the operation and origin of Google’s related vertical services. Such confusion seems to be more pronounced among older respondents and those without higher education qualifications, although the survey revealed some more surprising and unexpected results in terms of the demographics of confusion. These findings are important for several reasons. Firstly, they identify and point to a gap in consumer knowledge about Google search that should be addressed, presenting an opportunity for consumer education in this area. Secondly, this research challenges the widely held assumption that the average (Australian) Internet user has a basic understanding about the operation and function of the Google search engine. Thirdly, the results leave open the possibility for further proceedings against Google in Australia on the basis of consumer law, the decision in Google v ACCC notwithstanding. This points to the potential for a more active role for consumer law in the digital ecosystem to address problems emanating from large and powerful platform providers such as Google than it previously has occupied.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Dr Rachel Batty for her research assistance and the participants at the Melbourne Law School Empirical Studies in Trade Marks Junior Scholars Forum (December 2014), Scott Ewing and Nicola Howell for their thoughtful comments. Thanks also to David Bednall, Civilai Leckie and Vicki Huang for their time and assistance in the survey design process. This research was supported by grants from Swinburne Faculty of Health, Arts and Design and Swinburne Faculty of Business & Law.

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Correspondence to A. Daly.

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Daly, A., Scardamaglia, A. Profiling the Australian Google Consumer: Implications of Search Engine Practices for Consumer Law and Policy. J Consum Policy 40, 299–320 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10603-017-9349-9

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Keywords

  • Google
  • Consumer law
  • Consumer policy
  • Trade marks
  • Intermediary liability
  • AdWords
  • Internet advertising