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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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‘Crime not to help’: South Korean ex-SEAL has no Ukraine regrets

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South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber Ken Rhee told AFP he has no regrets about his decision to fight in Ukraine

South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber Ken Rhee told AFP he has no regrets about his decision to fight in Ukraine – Copyright AFP Jung Yeon-je

Cat Barton and Kang Jin-kyu

A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a “crime” not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.

To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.

But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

“You’re walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying ‘no swimming’ — but you see someone drowning. It’s a crime not to help. That’s how I see it,” he told AFP.

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Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a “patriot”, he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defence consultancy.

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“I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help,” he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea’s passport law to leave as equivalent to a “traffic violation”.

– Backlash in Korea –

But the reaction in South Korea — where Rhee shot to fame as a trainer in the popular YouTube series “Fake Men” — was swift and unforgiving.

“It was instant. People in Korea, they just criticised me about breaking the law,” said Rhee.

His critics claim the 38-year-old’s decision was criminally irresponsible, and point to his posting of war footage on his YouTube and Instagram accounts as evidence of showboating.

Rhee says he tries not to let the furore get to him. “I think it’s pretty obvious who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” he said of Russia and Ukraine. 

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On his first day on the frontline in Irpin — which he describes as “the Wild West” and “chaos” — he says he witnessed Russian war crimes.

“I saw a civilian get shot. He was driving… and they shot him through the windshield and he died in front of us,” he said.

“It was like: there’s my proof. There’s definitely war crimes going on. It reminded me and my teammates what we were doing and why we were there,” he said.

Because of his military training, Rhee was told to set up his own team, so he recruited other volunteers with combat experience and set up a multi-national special operations group.

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“I was eating Canadian MREs. My gun was from the Czech Republic. I have a Javelin missile from the United States. I have a rocket that’s from Germany… but nothing is Korean,” he said.

He tried to take his Korean-made night vision goggles but was not given government export permission. Seoul has provided non-lethal aid to Kyiv, but Rhee said they could do more.

“Korea has state-of-the-art equipment… they’re very good at making weapons,” he said.

– ‘See you in Taiwan’ –

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Russia said this week that 13 South Koreans had travelled to Ukraine — including four who were killed. Seoul said it was trying to verify the claims.

Although Rhee did not know the fate of all his teammates, he said “a lot of my friends have died”.

“I don’t want my friends’ sacrifices to be forgotten,” he said, adding that he plans to write a book — and maybe a screenplay — about his team’s experiences.

But first, he needs to deal with the official repercussions of his trip. He is quietly optimistic South Korea’s new conservative administration won’t put him in jail.

Rhee is not allowed to leave the country until his case is resolved, and is receiving treatment for his injuries. But he hopes one day to fight alongside his teammates again, for a cause they believe in.

The joke as people left the frontline was: “See you in Taiwan,” he said, referring darkly to the risk that Beijing will follow Moscow’s lead and invade a neighbouring democracy.

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