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Op-Ed: Extremely tricky unique court case for Meta, Facebook might clarify online legal advertising issues

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Facebook parent Meta says its was told by Russian authorities to stop the work of its fact-checkers


Facebook parent Meta says its was told by Russian authorities to stop the work of its fact-checkers – Copyright AFP Charly TRIBALLEAU

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has thrown a palette of legal bricks through one of the more complex legal issues on social media. The ACCC alleges that Meta engaged in “false, misleading or deceptive conduct by publishing scam advertisements”.

(These ads include a secondary issue; the use of celebrity images on scam ads. That’s been previously covered. This article is intended to focus on the macro issues affecting social media. There’s a civil case filed by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest which includes allegations of money laundering, and related problems.)  

These are all serious enough legal problems without the use of the word “scam”. The ads related to cryptocurrency scams, add some more depth and difficulty.

If you’re thinking this case is the entire bandwidth of grim, expensive legal issues for social media advertising, you’re right. It’s just that this case is far more complex than it looks. “False, misleading, and deceptive conduct” is pretty much the entire spectrum of advertising law Thou Shalt Nots.

False advertising is of course illegal. Misleading and deceptive conduct are also illegal with added upside on the subject of how publishing online ads works.

Then there’s the scams issue. Online scams are at plague levels worldwide. This case plugs in directly into just about all aspects of that big messy situation. This is where “false, misleading, and deceptive conduct” turns potentially criminal.

There’s, therefore, a lot at stake for advertisers, social media, and the public. ACCC is doing its job as a regulator, targeting a unique combination of major online advertising issues in extraordinary depth. This is effectively a test case. ACCC’s public statement regarding the case is interesting reading and includes some consumer advice.

Meta/Facebook’s problems

One of the biggest issues for Facebook is advertising. This is Facebook’s core revenue base. It’s tricky enough without scams, and decidedly thankless as an advertising environment.

Online advertising is a farce. It’s burdened with payment systems, absurd algorithms, and the rest of the dung cart of techno-self-hyped garbage that doesn’t work. It rarely reaches audiences. Facebook is arguably a bit better than most, because the users are voluntary platform-dwellers.

These users might actually be interested in products and services. They’re online on a continuous basis. Ads aren’t directly search-related. Facebook is a more efficient form of “passive SEO” in some ways.

… This is why this case is so important. It strikes directly at Facebook’s major legal and revenue issues. It directly affects the user base and user legal issues.

It shouldn’t be assumed that Facebook is necessarily happy with the way things work. Facebook is a flak magnet for criticism on so many issues related to its algorithms, ads, and scam issues.

Much of the criticism is unrealistic and staggeringly myopic in legal terms. This is social media. Social issues naturally impact the world’s biggest social media platform. Facebook didn’t invent the social environment; it reflects it, all too well, sometimes. It’s often like blaming the phone company for a crank call, but not the caller.

Can Facebook vet all ads for content issues? Probably not. It’d be horrendously expensive. Online advertising isn’t usually done under oath, either. How do you fight crime with a social media platform? You can try, sure, but what’s possible has to be considered.

Ironically, the case might also give Facebook some useful legal options, win, lose, or draw. Facebook is not a law enforcement agency. Its best and by far simplest option is to distance itself from legally dubious content with its Terms of Use. Any content which is deemed unacceptable can simply be refused or trashed on that basis. No comeback.  

The main difference here is that managing ads can be done at the back end, not the live content end. Ads could be refused on any given basis, and terms reflecting Facebook’s absolute final say in what’s published and what’s not are unarguable.

Global ramifications

The truth is that the law follows its own logic, right or wrong. This case will create either ripples or waves throughout the global regulatory and civil legal environment. Even the huge regulatory coma in the US could benefit from some findings in multiple areas.

The regulatory environment needs direction. Online law is still way too slow and well behind most of the common legal issues. This case could be a nice catchall reference for a lot of online legal problems.  

Civil law is far more volatile, with highly motivated people’s cases creating very subjective, limited legal precedents on a routine basis. This is unavoidable and sometimes beneficial, but a wider frame of legal reference would definitely clarify some issues. (This is similar to “So you’ve been hit by an underage drunk driving a train in a supermarket” in civil law terms.)

The world needs a clear legal framework to manage the online scams, civil issues, and above all the liabilities of social media for commercial content. Nobody’s likely to celebrate this court case, but maybe you should. This could clean up a lot of content and conduct which is long overdue for eradication.

Facebook could shut down a huge amount of possible legal trouble for itself and lose problem advertisers as well. The wider social media environment could benefit a lot from a safer and simpler online advertising environment.

It can be a win-win, done properly. This is definitely not the time or place for “trial by media”. The legal issues must be considered and done well. With a bit of luck, the world may benefit hugely from this case.

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Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.



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Pig butchering and the other peculiar cyber-scams on the rise

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Pig butchering and the other peculiar cyber-scams on the rise

Pointing to a computer screen. Image by Tim Sandle.

The countdown to holiday period shopping is on. While sales are up, so are risks. Barclay’s estimate a 70 percent increase in scams the last year. Hence, consumers need to be even more vigilant with the deals they’re seeking out and the websites they are purchasing from.

To help Digital Journal  readers be more mindful as to the key risk factors, James Walker, CEO at Rightly, explains the main issues. This includes an uptick in recent ‘brushing scams’ and fake reviews, as well as further details around other types of scams to watch out for.

Walker sees this period of time as providing ample situations for “Fraudsters to take advantage of innocent consumers. There are multiple tactics scammers use to convince people to part with their money, particularly in the run-up to a day which promises huge savings. One scam in particular we’ve been seeing an increase in is the so-called brushing scam in the lead up to the festive season, which involves unsuspecting people receiving unsolicited deliveries.”

Expanding on the strange deliveries, Walker says: “If you receive an unexpected package, it may be a scam that online sellers use to falsely inflate ratings and post fake reviews, and may mean your personal data has been compromised. If you have received an unexpected package from a company such as Amazon and suspect it to be a brushing scam, contact customer support directly. They can tell you whether your real account has been compromised and will cancel the fake account. The same goes for other marketplaces like eBay.”

Expanding on this tactic, Walker explains: “Unfortunately, such scams have also led to significant increase in fake reviews on Amazon, with an estimated 61 percent of all reviews classified as fake as fraudulent sellers try to manipulate buyers into making a purchase. Always be cautious when buying online and do as much background research as possible on a company or product before buying anything.”

Among the most prevalent scams, Walker cites:

Social media scams

This is where scammers take over your social profile, gaining access to influence your friends and family. But this is only the start of taking over someone’s life, this can lead to the opening of bank accounts and creating fake identities in your name.

Burner businesses

This is when scammers buy a company for a reasonable amount and appear to trade, genuinely selling goods and services. They build up lots of sales, and then when the time is right, they move the money out and close down the business, leaving people out of pocket and either with fake goods or none at all.

Tickets to events

With the football World Cup taking place, it’s not too surprising to see that ticket scams are on the rise. Ticket selling scams happen when a scammer uses tickets as bait to steal your money. The scammer usually sells fake tickets, or you pay for a ticket, but never receive it. They are common when tickets for popular concerts, plays, and sporting events sell out. Additionally, scam artists purporting to represent musicians or bands have invited promoters to send offers for non-existent tour dates in a phishing email.

Pig butchering

It sounds unpleasant, but so called ‘pig-butchering’ scams are on the rise. These scams happen when someone seemingly friendly and open befriends you online and over time, through a series of conversations, persuades you to part with money. It’s often a little at first, suggesting you put some cash into a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ investment. Only, of course, the investment is a scam and fraudulent.

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