Social media

Social media round-up: August 2017

August has been a truly bad month when it comes to racism and sexism in the news, and of course inevitably on social media, the medium being a mere reflection of reality, perhaps slightly amplified given its 24/7, viral nature.

I also endured my first ever social media suspension after Facebook locked me out for 24 hours after a spurious report in respect of two of my posts, and a grievous misapplication of Facebook’s Community Standards, but more on that below.

This month I devote a significant portion of this round-up to the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the role social media played, and continues to play, in the events, culturally, politically, and socially, followed by a quick look at the latest attempt in Australia to prevent online radicalisation and abuse.

I follow with a brief look at the spending on social media by Australian politicians, the art of so-called ‘dark-ads’ on Facebook, most often used to try to influence opinions for political purposes, the underground sale of Instagram verifications, and that Google ‘diversity’ memo, which has caused a global stir when a senior engineer penned a manifesto explaining women’s ‘biological incompatibility’ with working in the technology industry … Yes, he did …

Next I look at a recent book by Lucas Kello, a Senior Lecturer in International Affairs, and the Director of the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs at the University of Oxford, which applies international relations theory to cyber incidents, to develop coherent and practical strategies and benchmarks to help experts to develop workable policies that can be applied to the complex web of geopolitics meeting subterfuge in cyberspace.

The only two good social media stories of the month follow, one reporting on the people of Houston turning to social media for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and finding an entire community ready to band together and help each other, and the tale of a cheeky selfie on a lost mobile phone by a Queensland Constable.

Fake news makes another return as Facebook continues to struggle with controlling the phenomenon, I introduce you to fake news’ cousin, fake history, and if you thought LinkedIn was still a safe space, this month’s chilling 007-style spy tale is guaranteed to send shivers up your spine.

Free speech features prominently again this month, starting with the story of my own Facebook suspension, and my consequent analysis of the problems plaguing the reporting and suspension systems implemented by social media operators.

Where Facebook appears to fall down completely is context.

Being a gay man, I’m going to use homophobia as the example.

Let’s say neo-Nazis put up posters that say ‘Kill all gays.’ If they post a copy of that poster to their Facebook hate group, one would expect that post to be removed, together with any hateful comments and replies, and the persons responsible suspended, or kicked off even.

Now let’s presume a gay man sees the poster, takes a picture of it, reports it to the police, and then logs on to an LGBTI community group and shares that poster with a safety warning about the area where it has been seen, and a copy of the complaint to the police, so others can use it as a template and report it quicker and easier if they see the same (or similar) poster again.

Admittedly, the poster is still the same hateful material, but the context has changed significantly.

By deleting that post, Facebook could be responsible for someone missing out on the safety warning, and potentially getting hurt by neo-Nazis as a consequence or, at the very least, slowing down the community’s ability to respond to, and protect itself from, hate and violent threats.

Like I said, context …

The free speech section goes on to cover the temporary Instagram suspension of Australia’s own ‘Nude Blogger,’ Google’s latest troubles with open markets proponent Barry Lynn, the increasing silencing of Australia’s public servants under the updated social media guidelines issued by the Australian Public Service Commission, Vladimir Putin, following China’s recent lead, banning virtual private networks in Russia in the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression, Palestine introducing severe rules, practically amounting to a ban, on social media use, the ongoing questions around the constitutionality of US politicians and public figures blocking critics on social media, and the possibility of social media making a comeback in Iran.

Privacy also features prominently this month, with a German research team revealing that so-called ‘anonymous’ browsing data is anything but anonymous, LinkedIn losing a battle to data scrapers in the US, the court holding that they are entitled to collect and use the publicly available data of social media users, and the upcoming privacy revolution in the European Union with the introduction of the new General Data Protection Regulations from 25 May 2018.

More tales of social media gone wrong follow, from the downright idiotic new ‘Hot Water Challenge’ doing the rounds, to Catholic schoolgirls live streaming a mob attack on fellow students, and the very, very bad Instagram day of Louise Linton, wife of Steven T Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury in Donald Trump’s administration.

The ongoing problems of social media abuse, harassment, and crime earn a mention, with fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists using social media to amplify their messages of hate, Gina Miller of the BREXIT legal challenge fame in hiding again over threatened acid attacks, an Assistant Police Chief resigning after posting a blatantly racist meme to Facebook, questions whether Donald Trump himself had breached Twitter’s rules and terms of service and should he be subjected to a ban from the social network, an artist bringing the hate speech he has been subjected to on Twitter to the footpath outside the social network’s German offices, revenge porn becoming a crime in NSW, a masseur being accused of taking ‘creepshots’ of his clients and sharing them to social media, sexual assaults linked to social media on Sydney’s North Shore, a Sydney blogger finding himself in jail for contempt of court, suggestions that YouTube’s crackdown on extremists materials is destroying evidence of war crimes, and criminal gangs advertising themselves on social media.

I wrap up this month with a report on the next major Australian piracy showdown taking shape, a corporate social media promotion going wrong yet again, a bank attracting social media fury over a system outage, and the Australian Senate’s inquiry into tax avoidance by multinationals, including social media and technology companies.

See all previous issues of ‘Social Media Round-Up

Tweet of the month

This month I tried very hard not to give tweet of the month to J.K. Rowling … again. Which is hard, because she remains the queen of Twitter with the wittiest tweets to beat.

I also tried very hard not to pick a tweet that relates in any way to Donald Trump … again. Which is also hard, because he does have a tendency to feature highly in the mind-blowingly weird and amusing world of social media.

I failed on both of those accounts …

Tweet of the month is shared by ‘Bearded Stoner’ and … J.K. Rowling.

The Bearded Stoner gets a gong for a poignantly satirical comment in response to Maxine Waters, a veteran member of the United States Congress, calling Donald Trump ‘the most deplorable person I have met’.

J.K. Rowling hit it out of the ballpark with this acerbic observation about Fox News’ reporting on Donald Trump, as the North Korean crisis unfolded:

Culture and social media | Fake news | Free speech | Privacy | Social media gone wrong | Crime (and punishment) | Copyright | Corporate social media | Regulatory issues

Culture and social media

Charlottesville, Virginia

The tragic event that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia this month is a case study into the cultural, political, and social reach and significance of social media, and fake news.

By way of brief background, the council of Charlottesville, supported by its citizens, had voted to remove its statue of confederate General Robert E. Lee, erected in 1924.

The removal of confederate statues across the south had become somewhat of a flash point for those who desperately hold on to the racist, slave-holding past of the south, and continue to lionise those who fought to retain slavery.

Confederate statues are highly controversial because they are in effect an attempt to rewrite history by portraying those who fought for slavery as heroes, and even denying that slavery played a role in the Civil War. The installation of such statues reached their peak in the early 20th century and they were also largely a response to the growing civil rights movement by African-Americans asserting their rights, to remind them of their place in southern communities. Donald Trump, expressed a very different position about these statues on his choice of social media, Twitter.

Many considers such tweets from the President of the United States as virtue signalling to the fascist, Nazi, and white supremacist marchers and their sympathisers.

In response to the vote to remove the statue in Charlottesville, the so-called ‘Alt-Right,’ a collection of fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists re-branded for the millennials, organised a ‘Unite the Right’ event to protest the removal of the statue, unleashing on the town angry hoards of fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists.

Despite their attempt to re-brand, I will continue to refer to the Alt-Right as what they really are: fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists.

The first night of the rally they marched with torches, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and ‘Blood and soil,’ a phrase irretrievably linked to Nazi Germany, representing and ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on two factors, descent by blood and territory.

The next day they marched in the streets with confederate and Swastika flags, and symbols of white supremacy, chanting ‘F**k you fag**ts,’ with the occasional ‘Heil’ thrown in. That same day one of the Nazi protesters rammed his car into a crowd of people gathering to oppose the abhorrent rally of these fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old, local legal assistant, died in the attack.

Charlottesville, a liberal university town of 48,000 people, was founded in 1762 and has a rich history, including being home to two US Presidents – sadly, the town will now be irretrievably linked to, and remembered for, the appalling actions of uninvited and unwanted fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists.

So where does social media come in, I hear you wonder.

Fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists have been using social media very successfully over the past few years to connect, create social media troll armies, and to help them recruit, and organise, not unlike Islamist terrorists have been known to exploit the medium.

Their flagship fascist online publication, the Daily Stormer had led the social media efforts, but the slightly more mainstream, far-right Breitbart, known for its conspiracy theories, and racist, sexist, and anti-immigration pieces, has also done its fair share of the heavy lifting. It’s an interesting fact that the former executive chairman of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, was Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist until recently. After his departure from Donald Trump’s administration, he returned to Breitbart.

As Jessie Daniels observed on Newsweek, white supremacism is ‘woven into the tapestry of American culture,’ and addressing it will take more than removing confederate monuments, and shutting down a few websites.

For example another website called the ‘Stormfront,’ was also a haven for white supremacists, with around 300,000 registered users, and has been linked to almost 100 homicides since 2009, and it was referred to by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the ‘murder capital of the internet‘. The registrar eventually seized its domain name in August, responding to the growing public outrage.

But as Jessie Daniels highlights, so-called ‘cloaked sites,’ sites that conceal their authorship and political agenda, could be even more dangerous and harder to fight.

A good example of such sites is ‘,’ sounding entirely respectable, but in reality just a front for … Stormfront. Yes, Stormfront.

The site is not a tribute to the great civil rights leader as one would presume given its name. Rather, it is a thinly veiled attempt at discrediting Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement.

Related stories:
The anti-Semetic Google Chrome extension (June 2016)
The racial and misogynistic abuse of American comedienne and actress Leslie Jones (July 2016)
US high school suspends students over being members of a Facebook group calling for the execution of Jewish and black people (October 2016)
Twitter takes new steps to address online abuse (November 2016)

Charlottesville marked the sad historical moment of fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists emerging from behind their keyboards and social media troll accounts, and taking their bigotry, hate, and ignorance into the streets, with deadly result.

The very thing many of us have been warning about, and the reason many have been agitating for social media platforms to take the banning of bigoted, hateful, and abusive fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists far more seriously, had materialised on the streets of Charlottesville.

But, the tragedy in Charlottesville also lit up social media.

A Twitter campaign by @YesYoureRacist, set up to name and shame racists, swung into action with amateur investigators working to identify the marchers from their photos, with a few people already fired from their jobs, and disowned by their families over their actions.

Admittedly, some of the efforts misfired, with misidentifications and the wrong people being targeted. More collateral damage in an increasingly disturbing and vicious cultural war that’s playing out both online, and in real life.

Social media has also been employed by law enforcement agencies, to identify the white supremacists who have been captured in photos and videos brutally assaulting the counterprotestors. At least two men have already been arrested for the vicious beating of an African-American man, 20-year-old DeAndre Harris, captured on video.

Mainstream crowdfounding sites also entered the melee, banning and removing fundraisers from their platforms for participants in the rally, starting with James Fields, the man who slammed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer.

Airbnb was perhaps one of the most proactive companies, stepping in even before the rally took place, making it clear it was not willing to be involved in arranging accommodation for those who were travelling to the rally in Charlottesville.

Because we live in a complex web of geopolitics, expert analysts tracking Russian social media influence operations have also identified a connection between the Kremlin’s online propaganda machine and far-right memes, with an uptick in activity immediately after the events in Charlottesville. These are the same social media networks that actively spread misinformation during the 2016 election campaign, but this time They are amplifying right-wing extremist messages.

Unrest in the United States was front and center for Russian influence operations on Twitter this week, as users in the network sought to amplify alt-right alarmism about the left-wing Antifa (short for anti-fascist) movement. For consecutive days, the most-tweeted link in the network by far was a petition to declare Antifa a terrorist group. In addition to pushing hashtags and a direct link to the page, stories about the petition were the most-retweeted over the last 24 hours by two different Twitter accounts for Russia today, while the RT-affiliated Ruptly pushed video of a fight between neo-Nazis and Antifa activists in Berlin.

Activity from 600 monitored Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States Alliance for Securing DemocracyThe backlash that followed the events, finally forced social media companies to start cracking down on accounts associated with the organisers and participants of the rally, including the abovementioned Daily Stormer website getting kicked off serves by both GoDaddy Inc., and Google, with Cloudfare also dropping its protection of the site from denial-of-service attacks. It is understood that the Daily Stormer has now relocated to the dark web.

Breitbart is also facing a financial crunch, after its advertisers have been hit by a community campaign. And advertisers are practically fleeing the site, to avoid association with the far-right, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.

A group calling themselves the Sleeping Giants, have been using Twitter to urge companies to pull their advertising from Breitbart since late last year. Their campaign was already gaining traction, and the events in Charlottesville certainly helped their message.

We are trying to stop racist and sexist media by stopping its ad dollars. Many companies don’t even know it’s happening. It’s time to tell them.

Indeed, many companies who traditionally bought their ad packages through intermediaries, such as Google AdSense, Facebook, and Taboola, didn’t even know where their ads were appearing! You may recall YouTube getting into serious trouble in recent months over a similar problem, whereby respected international brands discovered their ads playing next to hate speech from the KKK, and other fringe groups and YouTube personalities.

The main tactic of the Sleeping Giants is surprisingly low-tech. They simply screen capture the advertising of a brand or company at Breitbart, tweet them the image to inform them where their ads appear, and explain how they can ensure that their advertising does not appear at Breitbart in the future.

Media Radar, an advertising analyst, reported that from March to May, Breitbart already lost 90% of its advertisers, and some of its traffic as well.

Even Apple and LinkedIn came out with their own denouncements, and Spotify announced it would start removing all ‘white power’ tracks from its music service – I bet you didn’t even know there is such music …

The question is whether now that they had tasted power, and what they consider a significant ‘victory,’ can we put the fascist, Nazi, white supremacist genie back into the bottle? Sadly, a recent poll by ABC News found that 9% of American’s believe that it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi, or white supremacist views. That’s around 22 million Americans.

Targeting online radicalisation and abuse

The online radicalisation of young people by terrorist organisation had become a growing and serious issue for law enforcement agencies and parents alike in the past few years.

In the latest attempt to combat such radicalisation, the Australian Multicultural Foundation released the CyberParent Web App, in 17 different languages, designed to help less than cyber-savvy migrant parents to monitor and evaluate their children’s use of the internet and social media.

Politicians understand the power of social media, but we are paying for it

The ABC revealed that Department of Finance records show a significant amount of taxpayers’ money is being spent by politicians on their social media presence.

Social media savvy Labor Senator Sam Dastyari spent $20,000 in one day to produce four Facebook videos, including two promoting the Labor Party leading up to the 2016 election.

Liberal Senator Tim Wilson spent $25,000 creating his website presence after his election last year.

While these expenses are arguably permissible under the current rules for parliamentary allowances, the rules are arguably in dire need of an update to tighten the definition of what’s permissible, especially when social media can be used to bypass the political advertising ban that applies to broadcasters, but not social media.

The art of Facebook dark ads

Dark ads

An unpublished status update, link share, video or photo that is not shared as an organic post, and it is inserted into social media users’ feed as a targeted ad.

Such targeted dark ads look like status updates or other shared information, but are largely utilised by political parties, and various partisan groups, to sway the target’s views and encourage sharing it with like-minded peers who are also likely to be more receptive to the message.

Dark ads are usually targeted based on social media users’ psychographic profiles generated from a range of sources, and are usually highly effective when it comes to shifting and strengthening attitudes.

Details of the methodologies used were presented at the DefCon hacking conference in Las Vegas.

Serious questions arise about the ethics of using psychographic targeting in an attempt to sway the opinions and views of the target, unbeknown to that person, because it enables those who utilise it to appeal to the worst common denominator, but in a practically undetectable manner.

Instagram verifications for sale?

Mashable revealed recently that Instagram’s much-coveted verifications are up for sale. In the age of social media influencers, unscrupulous insiders at Instagram are selling the blue ticks for up to $15,000.

Instagram is onto the scam though, and a number of people have been dismissed in response.

Google and that anti-diversity memo

Google has been quick to denounce a memo penned by a senior engineer, James Damore, railing against what he sees as ‘political correctness’ and a ‘left-wing bias’ at Google, and the drive for gender equality in the technology industry.

The 3,000 word document illustrates some of the ingrained, and highly unhelpful, attitudes companies are required to combat as they aim to embrace diversity. Admittedly, the memo in question is an exercise in tired and very old, and long-debunked, sexist twaddle, but nevertheless it is a reflection of some mindsets which cannot just be ignored:

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

• They’re universal across human cultures
• They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
• Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
• The underlying traits are highly heritable
• They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more:

• Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
• These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.
• Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
• This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
• Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

A sample from the arguments presented by the memoGoogle’s new VP for diversity, integrity, and governance, Danielle Brown, responded promptly with an internal memo to employees:

Affirming our commitment to diversity and inclusion—and healthy debate Googlers,

I’m Danielle, Google’s brand new VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance. I started just a couple of weeks ago, and I had hoped to take another week or so to get the lay of the land before introducing myself to you all. But given the heated debate we’ve seen over the past few days, I feel compelled to say a few words.

Many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders, as well as whether one can speak freely of these things at Google. And like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. I’m not going to link to it here as it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.

Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, “Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ‘Nuff said.”

Google has taken a strong stand on this issue, by releasing its demographic data and creating a company wide OKR on diversity and inclusion. Strong stands elicit strong reactions. Changing a culture is hard, and it’s often uncomfortable. But I firmly believe Google is doing the right thing, and that’s why I took this job.

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and I can tell you that I’ve never worked at a company that has so many platforms for employees to express themselves — TGIF, Memegen, internal G+, thousands of discussion groups. I know this conversation doesn’t end with my email today. I look forward to continuing to hear your thoughts as I settle in and meet with Googlers across the company.


Subsequently, Google CEO Sundar Pichai himself circulated a note to employees that said portions of the memo ‘violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.’

Google subsequently fired Mr Damore, who is now exploring his legal options against Google.

Admittedly, I find myself in a dispute with myself over Mr Damore firing. On the one hand, having someone like him around, with clearly hardwired negative perceptions of women’s ability to perform in the tech industry would complicate situations where he has to work with female colleagues. On the other hand, by firing him, Google may have given up a very teachable moment in educating those with less than enlightened worldviews.

Although, looking at his conduct since his dismissal, and his history, arguably Mr Damore has little interest in being educated, or corrected, and he appears to be unwilling to open his horizons, and accept information that contradicts what appears to be an entrenched position.

Mr Damore now has the Alt-Right on side, furious about his firing, of course, and a Twitter account, with the very self-assured ‘@Fired4Truth‘ username, where he continues his fight against what he sees as ‘forced’ gender diversity …

In the meantime it has also been revealed that the young man has a history of ‘inappropriateness’ dating back to his days at Harvard, where as a doctoral student in systems biology his sexist sense of humour had failed to connect with fellow students and instructors, leading to a public apology by the co-directors of the program:

Dear Members of the Systems Biology Program,
At our recent retreat, a student skit presented material that offended many members of our community. Skits are an important form of self-expression and we believe that students should feel free, and even encouraged, to make fun of the faculty, the academic leadership of the program, and the trials and tribulations of being a young scientist. But even in the context of a deliberately humorous event, targeting any group within the program that can be defined by gender, by ethnicity, by sexual orientation, or by religious affiliation, is never acceptable. As the directors of the program, we are responsible for creating a culture in which this important principle is self-evident. The responsibility for any offense thus lies with us and we would like to offer our sincere apology for uneasiness, embarrassment, or offense that any of you suffered at the retreat.
Yours sincerely,
Andrew Murray and Tim Mitchison

But perhaps the best response to the furore came from Holly Brockwell in The Guardian, in the form of a brief history of women in the tech industry, from the writer of the first computer algorithm, Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician chifley known for her work on the proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, to African-American women who worked as ‘human computers’ for NASA and helped put men on the moon.

The Virtual Weapon and International Order

The new book titled ‘The Virtual Weapon and International Order,’ by Lucas Kello is bound to become a must read for those exploring the weaponisation of cyberspace and social media.

Mr Kello is a Senior Lecturer in International Affairs, and the Director of the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs at the University of Oxford.

In his book, Kello applies international relations theory to analyse and understand cyber incidents, from Stuxnet in Iran, to the cyber attacks on Sony Pictures and Estonia, and the disruption of the 2016 US presidential election.

While to date we have avoided full-scale war as a consequence of State-sponsored cyber attacks, it may be only a question of time before a victim responds with a real-world attack.

Using those events, and the lessons learned from them, Kello attempts to develop coherent and practical strategies and benchmarks to help experts to develop workable policies that can be applied to the complex web of geopolitics meeting subterfuge in cyberspace.

Kello is correct when he asserts that new technologies destroyed the foundations of traditional methods of defence and deterrence, and that in the era of cyber-warfare everything is a potential target, from media, to electricity grids, water supplies, and missile systems.

The technology, and the relative ease with which it can be deployed, has also widened the potential list of perpetrators beyond enemy States, terrorists, and political saboteurs, to criminals, hackers, and bored teenagers.

Kello’s book is an essential read for the 21st century citizen wanting to understand the complex interactions of technology, geopolitics, and cyber-warfare.

Another cheeky police selfie melts hearts

It’s not always bad news on social media.

You may recall the feel-good story of a pair of Tasmanian police officers a few months ago, who found internet fame after a young gentleman posted a selfie he found on his phone after a big night. As it turned out, the passed out drunk man was helped home by the officers, but before they left his house they took a selfie on his mobile phone as a memento of their encounter.

Now an extremely photogenic Queensland police officer, Constable Mason Jago, went viral after he took a cheeky selfie of himself on a lost mobile phone belonging to a grateful ABC journalist who was more than happy to be reunited with her mobile phone.

The internet, absolutely starved for a good news story, loved the Constable, over 6,000 times …

People trapped by Hurricane Harvey turn to social media to get help

As catastrophic flooding struck Houston, the fourth biggest city of the United States, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, people trapped by deadly floodwaters turned to social media, including a Facebook Group and Twitter, to call for help after phone lines were down or jammed.

And social media responded …

Fake news

Facebook continues to battle fake news

Facebook appears to be stepping up its ongoing battle with fake news by engaging more third-party fact checkers and implementing further updates to its artificial intelligence tool designed to identify fake and hoax news items.

The test of the new fact checking system, which was announced back in December for the United States, will now be expanded to cover Germany, and The Netherlands. Facebook is making a concerted effort in Germany to demonstrate its commitment to eradicating fake news, to nullify allegations that it is not doing enough about inappropriate content, and subsequent regulatory threats by politicians.

Meet fake news’ cousin: fake history

We officially have a spin-off from fake news. It’s called fake history. And the two have a strong relationship.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, delivered a long-winded, somewhat confused speech to university students recently, peppered with references to George Soros, Hungarian-American business magnate and philanthropist, and his ‘plan’. According to Mr Orbán, the ‘plan’ appears to be some sort of confusing, elaborate conspiracy to flood Europe with migrants from the Muslim world …

But while creating fake news about Mr Soros in the present, Mr Orbán also engaged in some good old-fashioned re-engineering of history, fake history if you will, by conflating the Treaty of Trianon between the allies and the Kingdom of Hungary, which formally ended World War I and, among other things, reduced Hungary’s size to a third of its pre-war territory by allocating large areas to neighbouring countries, with his current dispute with the European Union over migration.

But what else could one expect from a man who is on the record praising Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian leader who cooperated with the Nazis, as an ‘exceptional statesman’.

And it’s not just Hungary, Turkey’s Erdogan is modifying school books to remove evolution and minimise the significance of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic, Russia’s Putin is rewriting Stalin’s legacy, China continues to omit the horrors of its Cultural Revolution, Australia refusing to formally acknowledge the Frontier Wars, and Donald Trump is fast catching up with his revision of history, most recently in Poland, recasting that nation’s historical struggle for freedom and independence as more a fight for family values, tradition, and god, rather than its aspiration for democracy.

The increasing challenge to our understanding of history was also demonstrated by the social media abuse unleashed on Mary Beard, British scholar and classicist, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature.

Our strange and troubling story starts with a tweet by Paul Jospeh Watson, a YouTube personality and conspiracy theorist, member of the so-called ‘Alt Right,’ after he took exception to the BBC’s portrayal of racial diversity in in Roman-era Britain.

Professor Beard, an expert on Roman history, and historian Mike Stuchbery, responded to Mr Watson noting that the depiction of a multiracial Roman Britain is pretty spot on historically, citing the example of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, born in what is now Algeria, who became governor of Britain.

Cue the social media abuse of the respected historian …

The abuse got pretty vicious, but the lady knows her stuff, and no amount of ignorant abuse can negate that.

The lesson?

Never start a fight about history with historians, especially when your entire understanding of Roman history probably comes from Hollywood blockbusters and HBO productions – no disrespect to HBO intended, as I love many of their shows, but they are entertainment, not history lessons.

Is LinkedIn the latest tool in Russia’s misinformation war?

A fascinating report by Jeff Stein in Newsweek revealed evidence that Russia may now be using the professional social network LinkedIn to mine information which it later uses in trying to influence targeted people’s opinions and views.

In a chilling account, British military veteran, Alan Malcher tells the story of being approach by a man with a strong Slavic accent at a London pub to praise Vladimir Putin and the separatist terrorists of Eastern Ukraine.

The unusual approach came soon after Mr Malcher joined a Washington-based think tank involved in combatting Russia’s stealth infiltration of US social media. Mr Malcher’s intelligence training training kicked in as soon as the complete stranger referred to his army service, which was unexpected information for a stranger to have, and he believes LinkedIn may have been harvested by Russian intelligence services to obtain that information.

An expert in information warfare, Malcher reasoned that the Kremlin had dispatched the stranger to the Queen’s Arms with a message: We know everything about you. Watch your step.

Free speech

My own Facebook suspension purgatory

Well, I have been writing about social media for years now, and reporting on countless people running into trouble on social media.

Now I can report that, for the first time, I experienced social media suspension first hand.

And I certainly learned a few things from the experience. Although it appears I was the subject of ‘malicious reporting,’ which is when people report your posts because they oppose your political or social views, that doesn’t make the experience any less pleasant.

If you read The Vue Post beyond my ‘Social media round-ups,’ you know that I am also a proud gay man, and that I support marriage equality. Since the voluntary marriage equality postal survey has been announced in Australia I have been active online, encouraging people to enrol to vote, vote ‘Yes,’ and also keeping a tab on hateful anti-gay materials used by the opponents of marriage equality.

I was the member of a Facebook group designed to bring together LGBTI people supporting marriage equality, where we share ideas, materials, and strategise about the upcoming postal survey.

Earlier this month horrific posters were put up in Melbourne, produced by a neo-Nazi group, attacking LGBTI people with lies and disturbing imagery.

I responded to this heinous act by writing an email to the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, largely responsible for the LGBTI community being subjected to the ugly debate that’s materialising around marriage equality, to highlight the growing ugliness of that debate, his significant responsibility for it, and my promise that I would campaign against him at the next Federal election as I live in his electorate.

Dear Mr Turnbull,

Just wanted to thank you for your civilised, respectful, and unifying debate on marriage equality … the attached posters are going up around Melbourne today. And we barely started.

I hope you are really proud of yourself because, make no mistake, you bear a good portion of the responsibility, and the LGBTI community, including me, will do all we can to ensure that history will reflect the disgrace you are, and your ‘contribution’ to this malicious farce.

My partner of almost 19 years and I live in your electorate. I would like to promise you that I will be collecting all these materials and when the next election comes around we will be going door-to-door, showing people what horrendous evil you unleashed on the LGBTI community just to protect your leadership and telling your constituents they better hope they don’t belong to a group of people you have to sell out next for the sake of your leadership or political expediency.

Here is some background on the ‘research’ cited in the poster, and here are the results from Columbia University of their review of scientific research on same-sex parenting.

Stephen Sander

I posted that email to the Facebook group as an example/template for others who may have wished to write their own message to the Prime Minister.

Following the Prime Minister’s unsatisfactory public response to the neo-Nazi poster, I prepared a new post highlighting the deep hypocrisy in his stance on the issue.

It looks like our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull is taking a leaf from Donald Trump’s political manual, blaming all sides for bad behaviour in the marriage equality debate. In the case of this horrendous homophobic poster that means:
• the neo-Nazis for making the poster;
• the homophobes for spreading it; and
• the gays for … well … existing …
There is a colourful Australian colloquialism that describes Mr Turnbull to a T: ‘weak as piss’.

Both the above posts were reported by someone to Facebook. Facebook subsequently deleted both of those posts, and because that came to two ‘offences,’ I was suspended from the platform for 24 hours.

Before my suspension, I managed to repost the email to Malcolm Turnbull with the following note to Facebook:

* Note to Facebook: you have removed the previous version of this post alleging a violation of your Community Standards.

I reject your assessment of this post being in breach of those Standards.

This post if a copy of an email sent to the Prime Minister of Australia to bring to his attention a homophobic campaign against the LGBTI community in the course of the ongoing marriage equality debate in Australia.

A copy of that email was posted as a resource to this Community, where members of the LGBTI community come together to strategise on how to respond to these kind of homophobic attacks, and support each other.

If you have an issue with homophobic content on Facebook, I suggest you visit the communities on your platform that are currently campaigning against marriage equality in Australia (I am happy to provide a list of those communities if you like), rather than those who use Facebook to fight for equality and social justice, to organise against homophobic attacks, and provide support for each other.

If you have any issues with this post please contact me directly, as I would be more than happy to discuss the matter with you.

Kind regards,
Stephen Sander

That repost remained on the group’s page undisturbed. The deleted original received over 300 likes from group members and was shared many times, without any concern being expressed about its appropriateness. I stand by the post.

The big lesson I learned from my suspension is that Facebook cannot be contacted, and they have no processes in place to challenge a suspension. A suspended Facebook member can’t even message Facebook during the suspension period.

And did I mention that other than a standard spill that pops up for a few seconds about the post in question having violated Facebook’s Community Standards, there is no detailed reason given why the post was deemed to be in violation.

I decided to leave the Facebook group, because I can only assume that marriage equality opponents had infiltrated or monitoring the group, and are using Facebook’s reporting system against its members. Clearly an abuse of the system designed to catch the abusers.

Ironically, my suspension came just after Facebook’s team rejected a complaint about an anti-gay group that calls itself ‘Opposing Grubby Bum Bashers’ – it would seem that such a patently homophobic name for an anti-gay group’s community page does not breach their Community Standards.

While I believe it’s very important that we ensure that hate and harassment are dealt with appropriately on social media, we also must make sure that the reporting processes designed in response to hate and harassment are accountable and transparent, and that the Community Standards are applied consistently, yet contextually, to ensure they don’t just become another weapon in the arsenal of social media trolls.

What’s particularly interesting about this incident is that it further highlights the hypocrisy Facebook has been long accused of when it comes to the application of its Community Standards. While Facebook talks a big game when it comes to LGBTI rights, it marches in the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade, and says it support marriage equality, it still suspended me over pro-LGBTI and pro-marriage equality materials and messages on an LGBTI support group, in response to purely malicious complaints.

It’s worth noting that the same materials posted to my other social media accounts remain unaffected. Meanwhile, the amount of hateful and homophobic materials, including the one my posts were commenting on and criticising, remain on Facebook, and could fill Sydney Harbour ten times over.

It’s the very definition of ironic that the tool designed to target abuser, harassers, and trolls is now being used by abuser, harassers, and trolls, taking advantage of the sheer incompetence of Facebook in the inconsistent and flawed application of their own Community Standards. The fact that I chose to self-censor, and to abandon a Facebook group designed to support the LGBTI community rather than be harassed and targeted by trolls using Facebook’s own reporting system, does not bode well for Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to build supportive communities on Facebook.

Where Facebook appears to fall down completely is context.

Being a gay man, I’m going to use homophobia as the example.

Let’s say neo-Nazis put up posters that say ‘Kill all gays.’ If they post a copy of that poster to their Facebook hate group, one would expect that post to be removed, together with any hateful comments and replies, and the persons responsible suspended, or kicked off even.

Now let’s presume a gay man sees the poster, takes a picture of it, reports it to the police, and then logs on to an LGBTI community group and shares that poster with a safety warning about the area where it has been seen, and a copy of the complaint to the police, so others can use it as a template and report it quicker and easier if they see the same (or similar) poster again.

Admittedly, the poster is still the same hateful material, but the context has changed significantly.

By deleting that post, Facebook could be responsible for someone missing out on the safety warning, and potentially getting hurt by neo-Nazis as a consequence or, at the very least, slowing down the community’s ability to respond to, and protect itself from, hate and violent threats.

Like I said, context …

We know that artificial intelligence technology is not yet advanced enough to deal with the nuances of human communications and can be a blunt tool, while individuals making such assessments are just too inconsistent, and potentially carry their own prejudices that may flow into their decision-making processes. Without a functional appeal process, the Facebook reporting system is doomed to become just another tool in the hands of trolls.

Subsequently I contacted Facebook in writing, setting out my grievances in detail, and asked that they discuss the matter further with me. So far Facebook is doing its best to stonewall me, but I am quite determined to ensure that Facebook injects some accountability and transparency into their reporting and suspension system, so it can’t be abused like it was in my case.

And that’s the story of my 24-hour Facebook suspension … so far.

Postscript, 30 January 2018

Despite repeated attempts to bring this matter to Facebook’s attention, the social network continued to completely ignore me for months.

Finally, when I responded to their post celebrating Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival both on Facebook and Instagram, raising the matter again, in their Instagram response Facebook publicly undertook to look into the matter.

I’m sorry Facebook, but I can’t take you seriously on this issue!

During the marriage equality campaign in Australia, you locked my Facebook account and deleted a number of my posts while I was campaigning for the ‘Yes’ vote, most likely on the basis of homophobic trolls reporting my posts I made to a public marriage equality campaign/support group which I was a member of.

My posts were keeping track of, highlighting, and reporting on the homophobic, hateful, and malicious materials that were being used by opponents during the campaign, and offering advice on how to counteract and respond to them.

When I tried to contact you about the lock-out, you completely ignored me … meanwhile the very same homophobic abuse, which I, and others, reported to you, were deemed to be in line with your community standards and remained online!

Just a day later I received a formal apology from Facebook and the posts in question have been ‘restored’.

Facebook apology

I posted one final response to Facebook in relation to the matter:

Thank you for your replies, including the private reply on Monday via Messeger Facebook.

Unfortunately, I found that response a largely meaningless ‘cut and paste’ PR response, almost six months after the fact. I would advise against such poorly worded, practically robotic, responses in the future.

Subsequently, last night I finally received a formal apology from Facebook for the deletions themselves:


A member of our team accidentally removed something you posted on Facebook. This was a mistake, and we sincerely apologize for this error. We’ve since restored the content, and you should now be able to see it.

The Facebook team’

However, this was almost six months after the fact, after Facebook having ignored three different attempts at discussing the issue with them, and also there was no mention of the 24-hour suspension which was a result of those deletions at the time.

24 hours, at the height of the Australian marriage equality campaign, which felt like torture not being able to participate in such a significant campaign, and political and social event, at the height of the ‘debate’ for a full day.

The suspension also resulted in subsequent self-censorship on my part, throughout the remainder of the campaign, in needless fear of further suspension.

I also left the public LGBTIQ support group in question, because I saw it as potentially compromised to homophobic opponents.

I know these are complex issues, but Facebook’s erroneous and inconsistent enforcement of its own Community Standards in such a harsh and practically ‘un-disputable’ manner, can have a chilling and significant effect on users and the public discourse …

But I do thank you for engaging on this matter finally, and for acknowledging that there was an error.

All the best, Stephen

Instagram suspends ‘The Nude Blogger’

Of course it’s not just Facebook that suffers from a lack of contextuality when it comes to evaluating and responding to reports of inappropriate posts and accounts, and inconsistent enforcement of community standards.

Australian Jessa O’Brien, a.k.a. The Nude Blogger, who was briefly suspended, and then promptly reinstated, posted a strong critique of the social media giants in response, when it comes to their guidelines on nudity in this instance.

View this post on Instagram

This is me, Jessa, and I am the creatress of The Nude Blogger. Now, as some of you may know, this account was abruptly, and without any warning whatsoever, deactivated over 3 weeks ago 😤 So apologies I've been a little quiet on this account. #linkinbio for full story 👆🏼 In the midst off all of this, I also set up a secondary account @thenudeblogger_ in the event that this one was not reactivated and just in case something similar happens again. It will be my secondary/backup account, so please do follow this account also 🙏🏽 I will continue to use this account as my MAIN and primary account. Since the deactivation of this account, I have embarked on a tireless crusade against the social media giants to raise awareness about body positivity and expose the contradictory nature of Instagram's blurred guidelines that only exacerbate appalling double standards 🙅🏽The deactivation of my account actually proved to be one of the best things to happen for my message about body-positivity 👊🏼What success we've had! It's been an absolute whirlwind…making headlines all around the world! A win for body-positivity and a win against Instagram ✊🏽 To those of you who have stood united with me, to those of you who believed in me, to those of you who helped me, to each and every one of you who either shared or posted something on my behalf, to the individuals within the media who gave my story a chance and a way to gain traction and spread even further, to the people who didn't just sit back on the issue, to the people who fought for something bigger than a following or popularity on Instagram, to the people who judged me, to the people who tried to tear me down…..THANK YOU 🙏🏽YOU have given body-positivity an even louder voice and a place well-deserved at the forefront of many more people's minds 💖 And to the person, people, robot or reptilian who clicked the button to reactivate my account…YOU have also just made more of a difference than you will ever know…so thank you. You've just helped to show the world that body-positivity and non-sexual nudity are ok. So yes, thank you too Instagram…it's been good ✌🏼And as I always say, LET'S START A DAMN REVOLUTION! ✊🏽✊🏽✊🏽

A post shared by The Nude Blogger (@thenudeblogger) on

We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.
Instagram Community Guidelines

A look at Jesse’s account will immediately reveal that while she does indeed post ‘nude’ photos, they all fall within the guidelines issued by Instagram, because the images that do feature Jesse’s ‘behind’ are not ‘close-ups,’ but distant shots that comply with the rules.

This indicates that the complaint about her account was spurious, and the determination to suspend her account flawed, and inconsistent with Instagram’s own guidelines.

Google in trouble again

In July I reported on US-based Campaign for Integrity questioning the integrity of Google’s research spending, and in return Google questioning the integrity of Campaign for Integrity.

This month, Google stands accused of playing a part in the ousting of one of its fervent critics from a think tank.

Barry Lynn has a history of being critical of market consolidation generally, and Google specifically, and not holding back. When Google was fined a record €2.4 billion in June by the European Union for anticompetitive conduct, Barry Lynn penned a statement for the New America think tank, praising the EU’s decision.

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, who was also the Chairman of New America until 2016, was reportedly not pleased with such a statement coming from New America, especially since Google, and related entities, have donated over $21 million to the New America Foundation since 1999.

Within a couple of days of the publication of that statement, Mr Lynn was informed by New America’s president, Anne-Maries Slaughter, that his team’s association with New America would be terminated.

It was of course emphasised that the decision was ‘in no way based on the content of’ Mr Lynn’s work, yet he was accused of ‘imperiling the institution as a whole’.

Mr Lynn is now accusing Ms Slaughter of caving to pressure from Google’s CEO, while Google rejects the accusation of any interference, and so does Ms Slaughter and New America.

Coincidence in timing, or subtle corporate influence? I suspect we will never know …

Mr Lynn will now set up an independent nonprofit organisation with the same team to continue the work of Open Markets, and if their current website, Citizens Against Monopoly, is anything to go by, there will be fireworks.

Citizens Against MonopolyAustralia’s public service

The polarisation of politics in Western democracies had caught up with Australia’s federal public service in the form of new social media guidelines issued by the Australian Public Service Commission that could lead to disciplinary action against public servants who like or share posts critical of the government, reinforcing the requirement that public servants appear impartial in the discharge of their roles. In its ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section, the Commission specifically states that ‘[i]f you ‘like’ something on a social media platform, it will generally be taken to be an endorsement of that material as though you’d created that material yourself. ‘Sharing’ a post has much the same effect.’

The new rules weigh particularly towards public servants criticising their own departments, but have caused upset by their extension to private emails, liking Facebook posts, and failure to delete posts from their page posted by others:

Doing nothing about objectionable material that someone else has posted on your page can reasonably be seen in some circumstances as your endorsement of that material. If someone does post material of this kind, it may be sensible to delete it or make it plain that you don’t agree with it or support it. Any breach of the Code would not come from the person making the post. It would come from how you reacted to it.

The Commission warns that while the common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression, the ‘right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.’ The Commission goes on to note that:

The implied Constitutional freedom of political communication is not a protection of free speech for individuals. It operates as a limit on the power of the Parliament to make laws unduly restricting speech.

None of the litigation brought before various courts has successfully argued that the Public Service Act, or the Code of Conduct, amounts to an undue limitation of the freedom of political communication.

The tightening of the rules doesn’t come as a huge surprise as the Commission warned back in 2016 about public servants’ use of social media, and the controversial case of Ms Banerji back in 2013 was also a clear shot across the bow for public servants.

Putin follows China’s lead, bans VPNs

Last month I reported China’s ongoing crackdown on non-sanctioned information, including its ban on virtual private networks, and Apple’s instantaneous acquiescence to the ban by removing VPN Apps from it Chinese App Store.

Not to be left out of the anti-free speech rampage, Russia’s Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on VPNs in Russia.

The sweeping ban is being sold under the guise of national security, and the need to prevent the spread of extremist materials.

The Palestine social media ban

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has approved a vaguely worded new ‘Electronic Crimes’ law earlier this month. Rights acivists argue the new law is designed to enable him to jail critics and opponents on meaningless charges of harming ‘national unity’ or the ‘social fabric’. The new offences are punishable by three to 15 years of hard labour.

The additional offence of violating ‘public manners’ online, carries a prison sentence of up to one year, and a fine of up to $7,000.

Internet service providers will be required to cooperate with Palestinian law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

US public figures blocking critics on social media

Last month I reported on the lawsuit filed in New York against Donald Trump, seeking an injunction requiring him to unblock critical followers on Twitter.

Following on the heels of the Supreme Court’s Decision in Packingham v North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. at 1735-36 where Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to social media as ‘the modern public square,’ a recent ruling out of Virginia may have given the case against Donald Trump a little extra gravitas, as the courts continue to struggle with trying to resolve the role of social media in various aspects of our lives. The case involved a complaint by Brian Davidson against the Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Phyllis Randall, after Ms Randall blocked him from commenting on her Facebook page.

The block only lasted 12 hours, but Mr Davidson sued Ms Randall nevertheless, arguing that her action violated his right to free speech and due process.

Senior Judge James C Cacheris of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed with Mr Davidson only on the free speech issue, holding that the Facebook page operated as a ‘forum for speech’ because the page was categorised as one belonging to a ‘government official’.

While the ruling means that constituents can’t be blocked for posting valid and constructive comments, looking at the court’s comments as a whole, it does not give a licence to troll:

Nonetheless, it is clear from both the context in which Plaintiff made the comment and what the parties recall of it that Plaintiff’s comment raised ethical questions about the conduct of School Board officials, alleging conflicts of interest involving their family members … Such “criticism of … official conduct” is not just protected speech, but lies at the very “heart” of the First Amendment.

Indeed, the suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards.

As the Supreme Court has recently noted, however, social media – and Facebook in particular – has become a vital platform for speech of all kinds. See Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1735-36. Indeed, social media may now be “the most important” modern forum “for the exchange of views.” Id. at 1735. The First Amendment applies to speech on social media with no less force than in other types of forums.

All of this isn’t to say that public officials are forbidden to moderate comments on their social media websites, or that it will always violate the First Amendment to ban or block commenters from such websites. Indeed, a degree of moderation is necessary to preserve social media websites as useful forums for the exchange of ideas.

It remains to be seen how the case against Donald Trump will play out.

Can social media make a comeback in Iran?

Iran is notorious for its control over social media, including shutting down websites, and a State-imposed ban on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Despite the official ban, Twitter is used by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with official accounts in several languages, as well as President Hassan Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Now, Iran’s youngest ever government minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, heading the Ministry of Communications and Technology, reportedly has announced an intention to try to lift the ban on Twitter, arguing that social media is a vital platform for citizens to communicate and express themselves.

A curious and brave position to take, given Iran’s government spent decades stopping its citizens from doing just that, that is communicating and expressing themselves.


Your ‘anonymous’ browsing data is not so anonymous

In a serious wake up call, German researchers had obtained the browsing data of three million internet users by creating a fake marketing company, and proceeded to identify a judge’s preferred porn, and the medication used by a German MP.

The team presented their disconcerting findings at the DefCon hacking conference in Las Vegas.

Data scrapers beat LinkedIn in the US, but will hit a brick wall in Europe

Last year I reported on LinkedIn going after so-called ‘data scarpers’ who are using bots to capture LinkedIn users’ public data. That case continues to work its way through the Northern District of California.

LinkedIn also tried to put a halt to the use of publicly available information on its platform specifically by hiQ Labs Inc., by sending it a cease and desist letter.

Unfortunately for LinkedIn, and its users, the court sided with hiQ after hiQ called LinkedIn’s bluff and promptly filed for a declaratory and injunctive relief to the effect that it did not violate state or federal law by copying ‘wholly public information from LinkedIn’s website.’

The US federal judge hearing the matter, District Judge Edward Chen, held that LinkedIn can’t prevent hiQ from accessing public profile data on its network and ordered the social network to remove the technology is subsequently implemented to prevent hiQ’s access to such information.

The implications of the case are signficant for social media operators, and other companies, when it comes to third parties accessing publicly available data hosted on their services.

There are also implications for users of the social networks as their publicly available data can potentially be analysed for purposes they may never have intended, such as their existing employers keeping tabs on their future career intentions.

Meanwhile, in Europe the situation is far more strict when it comes to privacy and data protection, and an operation such as hiQ will run afoul of privacy rules in Europe, especially with incoming new data privacy regulations from 25 May 2018.

That day the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulations (Regulation EU 2016/679) will come into force. The GDPR is designed to put citizens and residents firmly in the driving seat when it comes to control of their personal data.

The GDPR will replace the current Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46/EC).

One of the first key differences from the old 1995 data protection directive is that the GDPR is a regulation, not a directive. This means the GDPR will come into force uniformly in all member States, and won’t require each national government to determine implementation, and pass enabling legislation.

The GDPR will apply to all companies that control or process the data of the residents of the European Union, both local and foreign. Not having an official presence or office in the EU won’t help foreign companies to escape the scope of the GDPR.

Companies are required to self-report any breach, regardless of size, within 72 hours (Article 33) unless the company is able to demonstrate that the personal data breach is unlikely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of people, and the potential penalties are severe by global standards: administrative fines of up to €20 million, or 4% of the company’s total global turnover of the preceding financial year, whichever is higher (Article 83).

The definition of personal data is wide and designed to recognise the complex reality of the online world.

‘personal data’ means any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person;
Article 4(1)The GDPR also recognises significant new data privacy rights, including for example the right to challenge decisions that have been made about them by algorithms processing their personal data, where it produces legal effects concerning them, or similarly significantly affects them (Article 22).

‘profiling’ means any form of automated processing of personal data consisting of the use of personal data to evaluate certain personal aspects relating to a natural person, in particular to analyse or predict aspects concerning that natural person’s performance at work, economic situation, health, personal preferences, interests, reliability, behaviour, location or movements;
Article 4(4)The GDPR also requires that express consent be obtained not just for the collection of data, but also for the specific uses to which it will be put, including subjecting data to ‘automated decision-making, including profiling’ (Article 13). These obligations are extended by Article 14 to organisations which obtain personal data but not directly from the individual.

Individuals will also have the right to request that companies correct (Article 16) or even delete their personal data from their system, and provide proof that the data in question has been properly deleted (Article 17).

While for a lot of large organisations that operate ethically the GDPR will mean only a somewhat increased regulatory compliance burden, data scrapers, targeting and tracking companies, and other dubious dealers in personal data, are in for a rude shock, no matter where they operate from.

For example, the data scraped by hiQ from LinkedIn and other social networks may be public information, but nevertheless it is still personal data, thus its control and process by hiQ when that data involves residents of the European Union will be captured by the GDPR, even if hiQ has no presence in the European Union, exposing hiQ, and even its clients, to liability.

That exposure will arise immediately at the collection point, if hiQ does not inform each individual resident of the European Union about the collection of their data, and its intended use.

hiQ then would need to ensure that it has processes in place to correct or delete an individual’s data if a request is made, and that it can provide proof of that deletion.

Further, individuals would have a legal right to challenge any subsequent decision or action taken in respect of an individual based on the analysis of their data using an algorithm, putting hiQ’s clients in the potential line of fire as well.

Arguably, the GDPR makes hiQ’s current business and operation model practically unworkable when it comes to EU residents.

Interestingly, the GDPR has some similar themes to Australia’s own privacy rules and National Privacy Principles, however the GDPR is far more detailed, has been significantly expanded in recognition of the modern use of personal data and the realities of the online environment, has far stricter reporting requirements and, most importantly, contains potentially severe penalties for breaches.

If the GDPR is the shark of individual data protection, in comparison Australia’s National Privacy Principles would qualify as playful dolphin at best.

Social media gone wrong

Watch what the kids get up to!

Last month I reported on what is termed as the ‘Blue Whale Challenge‘ on social media, which has reportedly resulted in the death of a number of teenagers.

Now a new equally senseless social media phenomenon is being reported, involving the throwing of boiling hot water on another person.

No, I don’t know why either!

A Bronx sleepover ended in tragedy when an 11-year-old had hot water poured over her face while she slept … by her friends.

This new ‘game’ is apparently called the ‘Hot Water Challenge’.

The young girl is recovering from her serious burns but has suffered potentially life-changing injuries, while her 12-year-old friend is facing felony assault charges.

Closer to home, a number of Catholic schoolgirls have been suspended after they broadcast a bathroom fight on Facebook Live.

The disturbing footage showed two girls barricaded in a bathroom stall at a Melbourne Catholic college, with a mob of fellow students threatening them.

The cause of the violence? A social media clash between girls over the previous weekend. Two girls reported the matter to the school, but it was too late and the dispute spilled over into the real world.

Louise Linton’s bad Instagram day

Louise Linton is the wife of Steven T Mnuchin, former Goldman Sachs investment banker, now Secretary of the Treasury in Donald Trump’s administration.

Ms Linton enjoys the good life, nice things, and has a love of fashion labels. Recently she accompanied her husband on a trip to Kentucky, and posted a fabulously stylish picture of herself disembarking from her husband’s official aircraft writing ‘Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #countryside #rolandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa’.

Jennifer Miller, a 45-year-old mother of three from Oregon, with an MBA and a career in health care, quipped in response: ‘Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable’.

Well, for the lack of a better term, it was on! Ms Linton was not in the mood for someone to rain on her fashion parade and responded in some detail.

@jennimiller29 cute!😘 Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country? I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day “trip” than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.💪🏻😘 You are adorably out of touch. 😍 Thanks for the passive agressive comment. Your kids look very cute. Your life looks very cute. I know you’re mad but deep down you’re really nice and so am I. Sending me passive agressive Instagram comments isn’t going to make life feel better. Maybe a nice message, one filled with wisdom and hunanity would get more traction. Have a pleasent evening. Go chill out and watch the new game of thrones. It’s fab!

Now, it matters not whether you think that response was really necessary, or how condescending (or not) those comments may have been. Although for her to say ‘you are adorably out of touch,’ was a brave move …

Louise Linton
Louise Linton


matters not that she apologised for her comment a few hours later, once she realised that a category five social media tornado was heading her way, which could have seriously messed with those Hermes scarves.

This is social media. And it did what social media does best. It responded, and you know they mean it when even your Wikipedia page is not safe. For a period of time Ms Linton’s weight was listed there as ‘420 lb (191 kg) plus a Birkin bag’.

Sadly, Ms Linton now made her Instagram account private so we will never ever see her again zipping around in a speedboat on an Italian lake, or sipping wine in a restaurant overlooking the Louvre. And she did look fabulous in that Instagram shot.

But fabulousness is no defence to ignorantly flaunting tone-death privilege, and Ms Miller penned a full response to Ms Linton:

My friends and family will tell you that I have a big heart and am very caring, but that I’m also snarky and unafraid to call things like I see them. I did that to Louise Linton on Instagram the other day, referring to her post about her designer labels as “deplorable.”

I stand by that sentiment. To see someone in her position — married to a wealthy former Wall Street executive who is now secretary of the treasury and affects national economic policy — hashtag her luxury purchases when so many Americans are suffering economically is, well, deplorable.

She chose to respond in a way that only clarified her privilege by extolling her wealth and position. In a follow-up post on Instagram, she said I was out of touch, which I find incredibly laughable. I don’t think she has any idea what everyday Americans deal with, especially when it comes to economic struggles. Since her husband is secretary of the treasury, it behooves her to find out.

And while she has since apologized for her insensitive post, nothing she says now can negate the fact that her initial response to my frustration was to continue bragging about her wealth and to allege that her contributions to society have been more significant than mine.
te> Bur perhaps the Newsweek headline of an analysis penned by Professor Neil H. Buchanan, economist and legal scholar, and a professor of law at George Washington University, was the most poignant response of all: ‘Trump’s Marie Antoinette Louise Linton is all mink, no manners‘. A lot of food for thought in this little social media saga …
se and harassment

Google and YouTube continue to deal with extremist content that caused many corporates to boycott advertising on YouTube earlier this year.

Related stories:

/” target=”blank”>When your Google ads pop up with a KKK video (March 2017)

/” target=”blank”>When your Google ads pop up with a KKK video – Part II (April 2017)

Google of course is caught in a grey area between American reverence for free speech, its own community policies, and the expectations of users and corporate advertisers, the combinations of which cause the social media giant to dance a delicate routine.

Google is reportedly now experimenting with its own version of purgatory, which is halfway house between deleting content outright or allowing it on the platform. The new ‘limited state‘ will cause content to be less visible to a casual browser and will never be automatically recommended, but will nevertheless remain on the system.

However, the Alt-Right continues to use YouTube to spread its message, and organise itself into an increasingly coherent group, as discussed above in the context of the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia this month.

An additional interesting dimension is created when such YouTube personalities receive advice directly from the corridors of power. Although not the worst offenders when it comes to promoting fake news, YouTube personalities Diamond and Silk, known for their enthusiastic support for Donald Trump, were at the US Department of Commerce, getting advice on how to bring their opinions about President Trump to a larger audience, as tweeted by the US Department of Commerce, and then promptly deleted.

I reported on Gina Miller’s struggle with social media abuse following her landmark BREXIT legal challenge, and on the subsequent jailing of a British aristocrat Viscount Rhodri Philipps for racially aggravated social media threats towards her.

She is back in the news after revealing that she has been receiving more threats, this time of acid attacks, as people continue to hound her over her BREXIT opposition and successful legal challenge.

Social media in the workplace

Assistant Police Chief, Wayne Welsh, of Estherwood, Louisiana, resigned after a racist meme he shared to Facebook went viral and received an understandably negative reaction.

We would expect better from any member of our respective communities, let alone from someone in a position of high authority in a police department.

Do some of Donald Trump’s tweets breach Twitter’s rules and terms of service?

Some Twitter users are setting their sights on having the President of the United States of America booted from Twitter.

They argue that some of Donald Trump’s tweets violate Twitter’s rules, in particular his tweet threatening North Korea.

The Twitter Rules make it clear that users must ‘… not make threats of violence or promote violence …’

Now, it’s anyone’s guess whether Twitter would interpret threatening to nuke another country as a threat of violence and, if not, it will be interesting to hear their reasoning.

Meanwhile, if expert opinion is anything to go by in the age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, we may all benefit if Donald Trump is ejected from Twitter.

Tom Fletcher, the Oxford-educated former foreign policy adviser at 10 Downing Street to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron, thinks that careless tweets could start a war in the social media age.

But the most important thing social media does for us is that, for the first time, it gives us the means to influence the countries we work in on a massive scale, not just through elites. This is exciting, challenging and subversive. Getting it wrong could start a war: imagine if a diplomat tweeted a link to an offensive anti-Islam film. Getting it right has the potential to rewrite the diplomatic rulebook. A digital démarche, involving tens of thousands, will be more effective than the traditional démarche.
a fifth of its market value, that is $2.5 billion, by affecting Twitter’s intangible value and lead to what’s known as multiple compression.

I think it’s safe to say that even if that estimate is generous, Twitter will probably find a way to excuse Donald Trump’s breaches of its rules.

Art v Hate

Social media companies have long stood accused of not doing enough to prevent abuse and hate speech on their platforms.

A German-Israeli artist took matters into his own hand recently by duplicating hate speech from Twitter on the footpath outside Twitter’s Hamburg headquarters.

Shahak Shapira and fellow artists stencilled abusive tweets targeted at Muslims, Jewish people, and people of colour, directly from the social platform onto the street.

His #HeyTwitter direct action followed Twitter’s failure to delete 300 hate tweets he reported to the social media company.

As I noted before in the context of Germany and hate speech, technology companies used to the ‘everything goes’ free speech culture of the Unites States, often struggle in Europe where a number of jurisdictions have specific laws addressing hate speech. Germany is one of those jurisdictions, and a recent German law will step up the enforcement of those laws against social media operators by introducing fines of up to €50 million if clearly illegal content is not removed in a timely fashion.

Crime (and punishment)

Revenge porn becomes a crime in NSW

The NSW Attorney General announced this month that a new criminal offence will now target ‘intimate image abuse,’ punishable with a maximum sentence of three years in jail, and a $11,000 fine.

The Crimes Amendment (Intimate Images) Bill 2017 has now come into force, and inserts Division 15C into the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), dealing with the recording and distribution of intimate images.

‘Intimate images’ are defined to include an image of a person’s private parts, or an image that has been altered to appear to show a person’s private parts, or of a person engaged in a private act, in circumstances in which a reasonable person would reasonably expect to be afforded privacy.
include a person’s genital area or anal area, whether bare or covered by underwear, and the breasts of a female person, or transgender or intersex person identifying as female. ‘Engaged in a private act’ covers being in a state of undress, using the toilet, showering or bathing, engaging in a sexual act of a kind not ordinarily done in public, and engaging in any other like activity.

Distribution has been given a wide interpretation, and includes sending, supplying, exhibiting, transmitting, or communicating to another person, making available for viewing or accessing by another person, whether in person or by electronic, digital, or any other means.

For a consent to be valid for the recording or the distribution of an intimate image, the person subject of the intimate image must agree freely and voluntarily, and any such consent will be limited to the particular image and occasion in which the consent was granted. A person distributing an image of himself or herself will not be considered valid consent to any other distribution of the image.

The legislation also captures the act of threatening to record or distribute an intimate image, and subjects the perpetrator to the same punishment.

‘Creepshots’ taken to the next creepy level by masseur

Newcastle masseur had taken the concept of creepshots to a whole new level, after he was caught out taking naked photos of his female clients and sharing them on a private Instagram group of fellow male strippers …

Josh Hewitt is reportedly not even registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency or the Association of Massage Therapists.

The Newcastle Herald contacted a number of Mr Hewitt’s clients and given their reactions I doubt it will be long before a police investigation into the matter.

Sexual assaults linked to social media on Sydney’s North Shore

It was reported earlier this month that two women spoke to police about having been been sexually assaulted after making contact with the perpetrators on social media.
e may be more women who had been targeted who may not have contacted police and that the perpetrators may continue to target women.

No, you can’t just say anything on social media

Despite popular culture’s general impression that social media is a virtual ‘free for all,’ that’s not quite the case.

Over the months, and years, I detailed cases of dismissal when employees overstepped the line on social media, and expensive cases of defamation and even criminal charges following careless posts.

Now, a rogue blogger has been sent to jail for four months by the Supreme Court of New South Wales for contempt of court.

Shane Dowling continued to publish the names of two women who were accused of having an affair with Network Seven boss Tim Worner in the course of heated proceedings involving a third woman, contrary to the clear orders of the court after the two women commenced defamation proceedings against him.

Mr Dowling has repeatedly published the names of the first and second plaintiffs on his website, his Facebook account and his Twitter account both by making fresh posts and by failing to remove existing posts, and has done so knowing it was in contravention of Campbell J’s orders to do so. Including the fact of the making of the orders in his publications, and of his knowledge of them, makes Mr Dowling’s defiance of the Court greater. As I have previously observed, Mr Dowling has never contended that Campbell J’s orders were ambiguous or unclear or that he did not understand them. His conduct was, as I have found, intentional, wilful and deliberate.
bing as Mr Dowling’s apparent misunderstanding appears to be, I am not prepared to conclude that he is ignorant of the real issues in this part of the case, or that he has not flagrantly and intentionally disobeyed a solemn order of this Court. Even if on one view Mr Dowling’s enthusiasm for the cause as he perceives it borders on obsession, Mr Dowling is nonetheless to my observation a man of some intelligence who doubtless appreciates the proper legal foundation for his contempt.


Is YouTube’s crackdown on extremist propaganda destroying evidence of war crimes?

Under increasing political and public pressure, YouTube has removed thousands of videos from its platform in recent weeks and months, as part of its effort the purge extremist propaganda.

Unfortunately, observers and rights advocates now say that the deletion of those videos is potentially jeopardising future war crime investigations and prosecutions, often being the only contemporaneous evidence of atrocities that have taken place in the bloody Syrian conflict.

If you are a criminal gang, don’t promote your ‘business’ on social media

In the US, authorities indicted members of two rival gangs, after they promoted their ‘enterprise’ on Facebook and YouTube, referencing drug deals and shootings on social media.

Meanwhile, people smugglers were openly promoting their business on Facebook, trying to attract migrants seeking passage to Europe. The ads even contained testimonials from allegedly satisfied customers!

The fact that such advertising are posted in Arabic makes it harder for Facebook to identify and remove such materials, but to its credit Facebook has been acting promptly and to date has removed several such ads.

Given the people smuggling industry is worth an estimated $40 billion (yes that’s billion) per year worldwide, they are certainly well funded to continue to peddle their trade.

The next piracy showdown is underway

The Federal Court recently ordered Australia’s telecommunications companies to block dozens of video piracy sites, in a case brought by Roadshow Films: Roadshow Films Pty Ltd v Telstra Corporation Limited [2017] FCA 965.
An; target=”blank”>separate case pursued by Foxtel against several piracy streaming sites successfully added a further 127 domain names to Australia’s ISP blacklist recently.

Related stories:

/”>The Dallas Buyers Club copyright enforcement action fizzles out (December 2015)

/”>Is this the end of the Dallas Buyers Club saga? (August 2015)

/”>Australian government releases results of online copyright infringement research (July 2015)

/”>The Dallas Ransom Club? (June 2015)

/”>Communications Alliance submits the Copyright Notice Scheme Code 2015 for registration (April 2015)

/”>Piracy comes home to roost but when will the ‘Australia tax’ do the same? (April 2015)

To coincide with the latest blocking of piracy sites, the Chairman of Creative Content Australia, Graham Burke, also the co-CEO of Village Roadshow, announced the biggest ever anti-piracy campaign in Australia’s history.

Creative Content Australia is a consortium of copyright holders which includes Village Roadshow, Foxtel, the Australian Screen Association, the Motion Picture Association, and more.

‘The price of privacy’ is aimed at informing Australians about the blocking of all major piracy sites, while warning of the dangers of using the remaining sites to pirate entertainment, including viruses, spyware, compromised credit cards, and identity theft. The new campaign stars Bryan Brown.

It is also reported that Village Roadshow is now preparing to escalate the war on piracy further by pursuing individual viewers with copyright infringement lawsuits.
diate response to this may be to cite the Dallas Buyers Club copyright infringement lawsuit fiasco, Village appears to have learned from the missteps of the action taken by the makers of Dallas Buyers Club, and proposes to take a much gentler approach by pursuing infringers for their actual loss, around $10 per movie, and a modest costs claim of $200 on top of that.

No doubt Village hopes that the financial nudge will contribute to a cultural change in the long-term, while the gentleness of that nudge will prevent a public relations blowback.

Admittedly, it’s an ingenious strategy, but one that will nevertheless likely cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in actual legal fees and investigative costs. However, Village clearly hopes that carrying those costs in the short-term will have sufficient long-term benefits if it can bring about an end to our culture of piracy.

I do wonder though if legal action alone will be enough, given price has always been just one factor in a complex web of ignorance on part of the industry that made piracy very popular in Australia. The other factors include distribution, availability, and timeliness of release.

While the industry has tried to address some of these issues, their response has been patchy, even misguided in some respects.

The proliferation of streaming sites in Australia, coupled with restrictive licensing arrangements, has in fact segmented the market which in turn had increased overall subscription costs to customers, bringing price back into play.

At the same time, we had spectacular technical failures plaguing some of those streaming sites, forcing paying customers to reevaluate their reliability and value.

While some popular, high-rating shows are now fast-tracked to premier at the same time as in the US, there are plenty of others that are delayed by weeks, even months, if they arrive at all. In the global social media age fans simply won’t risk their favourite shows ruined by spoilers which are impossible to avoid.

You and I may consider this an insufficient explanation for infringing copyright, but try to explain that to the fans of a particular show, especially if they’re paying literally hundreds of dollars in subscription fees per month, if they subscribe to all sources of paid cable and streaming services now available in Australia to cover all their bases.

Corporate social media

Qantas and Barcelona

Digital advertising now represents a significant proportion of corporate advertising, yet the care taken when it comes to advertising on social media can still be very patchy, even for large corporations.

The latest example of such carelessness was provided by Qantas.

Less than 24 hours after the horrific terrorist attack in Barcelona, while 7-year-old Julian Cadman was still missing, and a number of Australians still lay injured in hospital, Qantas ran a cheery digital ad on Facebook promoting Barcelona as a holiday destination, which kept popping up in my news feed as a ‘sponsored’ post.

Definitely too soon.

But the reality is that large corporates often use complex online systems and elaborate processes with multiple sign-off points to manage their marketing mix, including digital social media advertising and promotions.

While doing so is essential for ensuring regulatory compliance and managing risks, the slowness of such systems and processes itself can become a liability when it comes to fast-moving social media, so they must have tested and reliable emergency procedures built into those systems and processes.

Where social media is part of the marketing mix, corporate social media and marketing teams need to be on top of their game, they must be professional and responsive to global events 24/7, be aware of all scheduled marketing and promotional activities, and take action by pulling, delaying, or replacing scheduled activities that may have become inappropriate in light of global, or local, events.

We live in a fast-moving world, and social media is a 24/7 viral medium with little room for errors, and a high probability for damage to corporate reputation if the medium is mismanaged. Negative comments were almost immediately starting to pop up under the promotion from shocked punters.

Instead of commenting publicly, I immediately sent a private message to Qantas via Facebook Messenger, and the promotion was promptly discontinued.

Bankwest faces online outrage

Just 12 months ago I reported on the social media outrage directed at the Commonwealth Bank following a nationwide outage of their online and mobile services.

A year later Bankwest waded into the same troubled waters when customers were prevented from accessing their money, following a planned update to mobile services appeared to have gone wrong. Customers responded to the outage on social media without delay …

While Bankwest was attempting to manage the crisis, the substance of their responses and the speed of the resolution was seen as poor by customers.

Regulatory issues

Senate inquiry into tax avoidance

The latest public hearing before the inquiry into tax avoidance and aggressive minimisation by corporations registered in Australia and multinational corporations operating in Australia by the Senate Economics References Committee took place on 22 August in Sydney.

The inquiry is exploring the adequacy of Australia’s current laws when it comes to tax avoidance and aggressive minimisation and the need for greater transparency to deter such practices. This inquiry has picked up the work of the Senate inquiry of the same name started in 2015, which lapsed when the general election was called on 9 May 2016.

In its first report the lapsed Committee already made 17 recommendations designed to combat tax avoidance and aggressive minimisation, and to protect Australia’s revenue base.

In the process the Committee made a number of interesting observations back in August 2015:

“… 2.20 Corporate income tax is an important part of Australia’s tax base and is the second largest contributor to tax revenue after personal income tax.
minimisation and avoidance can have a number of direct and indirect consequences for the broader economy and social fabric. Some submissions reflected growing concerns that tax avoidance causes serious harm, often to the most vulnerable groups in society, as unrealised corporate tax revenue denies governments revenue for essential public services, such as healthcare, education, effective law enforcement, aged care and roads. In essence, failure to address base erosion and tax leakage means that the tax burden eventually falls more heavily on other taxpayers and/or government does not provide the same level of services it would otherwise be able to provide.

2.52 Also, if left unaddressed, tax avoidance reduces the efficiency, fairness and sustainability of the tax system. This leads to unfair competitive disadvantages for businesses that do the right thing and, ultimately, distorts investment decisions.

2.53 Further, tax avoidance can undermine the integrity of the tax system and skew social and economic interactions by favouring those who can best afford to develop and implement the most effective tax strategy, usually large corporations and wealthy individuals. This has the potential to create widespread distrust and a reluctance to comply when others are not …

3.35 In the case of Apple, the committee questioned whether it was plausible that the Australian subsidiary could have a taxable income of only $247 million from revenue of $6,073 million in 2013–14, effectively representing an operating margin before tax of just over 4 per cent. As a result, Apple paid only $80 million in tax for this period which appears to the committee to be low given the company is very profitable globally.
lia reported a profit of just over $46 million on revenues of $358 million in 2012–13. It paid only $7.1 million in corporate tax, however, as it was able to claim a research and development tax credit to the value of $4.5 million.
rse of the inquiry, the committee was surprised to learn how little is known publicly about the potential size and scope of the aggressive tax minimisation measures and tax avoidance schemes used by large Australian corporations and multinationals operating in Australia. It was also taken aback by the reluctance of some companies to disclose information to the committee, or, of greater concern, where some companies seemed not to be in possession of what seemed important information about their company’s operations in other countries.”

In its second report, in April 2016, the Committee focused on transparency with particular emphasis on transfer pricing, the secrecy surrounding that activity, and the use of tax havens. In its report the Committee was practically sarcastic when it noted that it ‘found it incredulous that the CEO of Apple Australia did not know what a ‘double Irish sandwich with Dutch associations’ was’. In case you are wondering, it was a structure that allowed multinationals, in the past, to establish a series of companies in both Ireland and the Netherlands to reduce their tax liabilities, an arrangement that Apple actually utilised.

This month some of the largest social media and technology companies returned to the Senate to explain themselves again, including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google.

Of course since the last time they appeared before the Senate things have changed with the implementation of the Diverted Profits Tax, also known as the ‘Google Tax,’ from 1 July 2017, imposing a 40% tax on schemes by significant global entities where the principal purpose, or one of the principal purposes of the scheme, is to obtain an Australian tax benefit or to obtain both an Australian and foreign tax benefit.

In anticipation of the new regulatory landscape, several social media operators had already rearranged their tax affairs to comply. According to the Australian government, both Google and Facebook are now paying tax in Australia based on profits earned here, rather than shifting income to other jurisdictions with lower company tax rates, bringing in an additional $2 billion in tax revenue in 2017 alone.

Despite these recent improvements in tax practices, the big social media and technology companies didn’t escape the public hearing unscathed.

Facebook’s Vice President of Tax and Treasury, Ted Price travelled from the United States to appear before the Senate only to be subjected to the grilling of a lifetime.

In light of the changes to the law, Facebook now accounts for $327 million dollars in Australian revenue. Curiously, Facebook managed only a $6 million profit before income tax from that revenue, a margin of 2% compared to its global margin of 45%.

Although the revenue figure itself is still being questioned because Facebook only counts revenue as ‘Australian’ if the advertisers had a direct relationship with its Sydney or Melbourne offices. This means a significant amount of money earned in Australia is still being managed through Ireland. In fact, the total Facebook revenue in Australia is estimated to be closer to $1.6 billion, but even Facebook says that can’t tell how much revenue is being redirected, because they don’t ‘look at those figures on a country-by-country basis’.

Google’s Director of International Tax, Damon Richardson received a similar drilling, even though he emphasised that the tax Google pays in Australia has increased substantially, to $33 million in 2016.

Nevertheless the Committee considered that tax figure, 0.5% of Google’s global tax bill, surprisingly low. The Committee was also curious about the significant discrepancy between Google’s global tax rate of 19%, versus its foreign tax rate of 7.5%, and media reports which estimate Google’s advertising revenue in Australia around $2.5 billion. Mr Richardson remained firm, referring to Google’s audited financials showing a revenue of only about half of that, $1.2 billion.

Tony King, Managing Director of Apple was also pulled up on the seemingly excessive cost of sales in Australia, where it accounts for 91 cents from every dollar of revenue, while globally that figure is only 61 cents, and questions were raised how those costs integrate with Apple’s transfer pricing arrangements.

It has also been confirmed that none of the large international technology players signed up to the government’s Voluntary Tax Transparency Code for company tax disclosures. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft each snubbed the voluntary code, which would make companies to compare their effective company tax rate in Australia to their global operations, detail related-party dealings, and explain tax strategies.

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