Opinion

Small businesses need more support and action on digital disputes

- March 30, 2023 3 MIN READ
Graphic depicting workers locked out of digital accounts

Digital platforms have fundamentally changed the way in which small businesses connect and sell to their customers. However, when there is an issue with an account, solutions don’t come easily, writes Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson.

Digital platforms allow businesses to reach a significant portion of Australian and international markets. No longer is the barrier to business the need to have a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop front or office – and even those that have a physical presence also trade online where they can always be open for business.

Yet, when there is a problem – such as having your account shut down after being hacked – solving it can be a nightmare.  Not to mention the financial impact of being denied access to your customers.

Access denied

Digital platform providers do not make it easy for our small and family businesses to fix problems. Often there is no real person you can speak to, and the automated systems prevent you being able to escalate the issue. This is just not acceptable.

Some people have built their entire businesses on social media and digital platforms and having someone else access and control their account is devastating for their business and their reputation. They watch the financial and emotional damage occur in real time, with no ability to stop it.

One of the absurdities of the current situation is after being locked out of your account, you need to access your account to make a complaint. It’s the ultimate run-around.

It is crucial that platforms implement clear, appropriate and standardised internal procedures to enable a timely resolution for small business disputes with digital platforms.

Doing this and providing dedicated contacts would mean small businesses can have their dispute handled efficiently and resume operating their businesses sooner.

If the digital platform providers do their best to address complaints, we can do our best to help quickly resolve any disputes involving a small business.

Stressed woman at desk with 'help' sign on her forehead

Not a long-term solution

Since July 2020, my office has taken on 236 cases related to digital platforms. Many of those disputes involved a business owner being locked out of an account that has been compromised by a third party (such as a hacker) who posts content that breaches the digital platform’s policies and causes the account to be disabled.

This typically means a business loses access to their advertising, communication with customers, ability to provide posts about their services, intellectual property and key contacts for their business. It can also see charges accrue on accounts where advertising or credit cards are linked.

When we contact the digital platforms, most have engaged constructively and have provided us with a direct human contact to enable these disputes to be escalated. This regularly leads to satisfactory outcomes in just a handful of days – getting small business back in business.

However, they are not always consistent and the need for a government body to step in to resolve every small business dispute is not the answer.

Combatting scams and fake review campaigns

More also needs to be done to combat scams and fake reviews. Let’s implement the ACCC’s recommendation of a mandatory ‘notice-and-action’ mechanism. This would allow anyone to notify digital platforms of potential illegal content on their service and require them to take action.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable to fake review campaigns and fraudulent misrepresentation, as they lack the expertise and resources to prevent and combat scams. We’ve heard about cases of small businesses being held to ransom over fake reviews, with scammers only removing them once they receive payment.

Most disturbingly, there are commercial service providers that help new players break into a market by generating hostile contrived reviews for existing providers. The existing laws are not well suited to dealing with this and fake reviews and fraudulent misrepresentation of a business may stay visible, while investigations take a long time.

This could be supported by creating a ‘super-complaints’ mechanism to allow the ASBFEO and other credible dispute resolution agencies to refer cases directly to the ACCC for guaranteed investigation and, where necessary, enforcement.

What small businesses can and should do right now to minimise risk is:


This article was first published on Kochie’s Business Builders, read the original here.

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How the Small Business Ombudsman can help you resolve a business dispute

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