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Facing up to Facebook

By Russell Grenning - posted Thursday, 7 June 2018

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook conceded some 87 million users worldwide including at least 311,000 Australians had their private data compromised.

The world-wide reaction of revulsion and anger has forced the giant company on to the back foot as it faces critical inquiries not just in the USA and the European Union but Australia as well.

The Acting Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk has announced an inquiry to try and ascertain if Facebook has breached Australia's Privacy Act. Under a recently introduced Notifiable Data Breaches Scheme the Commissioner has the power to issue fines of up to $2.1 million to organisations which fail to comply with the Act.


"Given the global nature of this matter, we will confer with regulatory authorities internationally," Ms Flak said.

"All organisations that are covered by the Privacy Act have obligations in relation to the personal information that they hold. This includes taking reasonable steps to ensure that personal information is held securely and ensuring that customers are adequately notified about the collection and handling of their personal information." she said.

Since 2015, the Australian Information Commissioner has been part of the Global Cross Border Enforcement Arrangement which includes privacy authorities from, for example, Ireland, Canada and the UK.

In late May, the Papua-New Guinea Government announced that it was banning Facebook for a month in a bid to crack down on "fake users" and study the effects the website is having on the population. The Communications Minister Sam Basil said the shutdown would allow his department's analysts to carry out research to determine who was using the platform and how they were using it.

Just how Facebook operates in Australia was illustrated by two recent stories.

When Ken McLeod who lives in country NSW was defamed in a Facebook comment he went straight to Facebook Australia to have it removed. He was in for a big shock.


Believe it or not, Facebook Australia told him that it did not have authorization to access his user records or take any action about comment on and it also claimed that it did not "control of operate the website". Remarkably, it is Facebook Ireland Limited that has this control and when people sign up to the platform they are told that by creating an account "you agree to our terms and confirm that you have read our data policy".

Facebook shifted its business operations to Ireland in 2010 and, surprise surprise, laws protecting data in Ireland are "widely considered" to be less stringent than anywhere else according to Paul Kallenbach, a partner at law firm Minter Ellison.

The Facebook data policy is one of those lengthy fine-print documents which essentially means that Facebook can do whatever it bloody well likes and individuals can just get stuffed. If you have a Facebook account have you read the fine print?

Mr McLeod gave up trying to get Facebook Australia to respond positively or even sympathetically and had to resort to getting a court order requiring the comment writer to take down the inflammatory claims. The process took months and at his own cost.

And remember, if you have a Facebook page then you are subject to the same regime that Mr McLeod faced.

The alleged stringency that Facebook applies to those who post new pages was blown apart in April when it was revealed that the biggest page purporting to be part of the US Black Lives Matter movement was a scam run by an Australian Trade Union official, Ian MacKay.

His fake page garnered almost 700,000 followers dwarfing the Black Lives Matter official page which has about 40,000 followers and it has been alleged that at least some of the money collected from followers was transferred to Australia and didn't make it to the stated cause. The American CNN network exposed the scam and claimed the fake website had solicited more than $US100,000 through fund-raising campaigns.

MacKay was an organiser with the hard-left National Union of Workers and when contacted by CNN Mackay said, "My domain name buying and selling is a personal hobby." When the news broke the Union suspended Mackay.

Beyond that comment, Mackay refused to answer multiple questions from CNN apart from saying, "What is the point in speaking to you given that you are going to run the story either way.

The fake site was consistently linked to other websites tied to Mackay including . He appeared in the registration records until July, 2015, when Facebook enabled a feature that allowed site owners to hide their identities and contact information. Despite all of its promises about being open, transparent and accountable, Facebook hasn't seen any need to remove this feature.

Those behind the websites and the Facebook page encouraged people to donate through various online fundraising platforms including Donorbox. Their Donorbox plea read, "Our mission is to raise awareness about racism, bigotry, police brutality and hate crimes by exposing through social media locally and internationally stories that the mainstream media don't. We have built a following through hard work, dedication and the generosity of supporters like you that pitch in what they can do to help us promote or share our page and also pay to boost the stories the mainstream media tries to suppress through paid ads."

Another website associated with Mackay and which was also removed billed itself as an "Education and Training Portal Sponsorship Fund" that promised "online courses that educate people about the struggle of civil rights leaders and activists."

Typically, Facebook refused to comment when asked if ads were purchased to boost the page on its platform although after the exposure by CNN the fake sites were removed although the closure was very reluctant with Facebook claiming that its own investigation "didn't show anything that violated our Community Standards". What "community standards"?

Even more alarmingly, an analysis by the US Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has shown that Facebook has allowed Islamic State to establish a growing virtual presence with which to radicalise, recruit and support as well as potentially plan and direct terrorist attacks.

Since the revelations of Facebook sharing the private information about tens of millions of users, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has launched what he probably had hoped was a charm crusade in the USA , the UK and Europe. All reports of his crusade have not been encouraging for him.

His appearances before various Congressional/Parliamentary Committees have not played all that brilliantly and while his company has made all sorts of promises what they haven't admitted to is the undeniable fact that they have considerably expanded their PR/lobbying machine internationally.

And when Zuckerberg or one of his minions make what they must have imagined was a wonderful new statement about a brand new initiative, they are hit with other troubling questions from the media and legislators.

One Democrat Senator in the USA has proposed an Honest Ads Act and he is gathering bi-partisan support. If enacted, it would be a nightmare for Facebook.

While Zuckerberg announced that he supported the Bill, his own company declined to do so.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton who is still trooping around the USA on her Whinge Tour explaining that she lost the race for the presidency because everybody let her down, or because there were dirty tricks, or because the Russians interfered with fake news or something, told a Harvard University audience that she would like to be CEO of Facebook if she was asked describing it as the "biggest news platform in the world."

On balance, probably being President would be an easier job.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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