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Independent transparency research blocked • The Register

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Facebook, which has repeatedly touted its transparency efforts, on Tuesday disabled the accounts of independent ad transparency researchers.

The targeted ad biz said it did so in the name of privacy, a source of persistent scandal for the corporation. Facebook said it disabled the accounts, apps, Pages, and platform access for NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and participating researchers because their work violated its rules.

“NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our Terms of Service,” said Mike Clark, product management director at Facebook, in a blog post.

Clark said Facebook did so to comply with the terms of its FTC Order, which followed from the company’s 2019 settlement with the US trade watchdog to resolve privacy complaints. And he said Facebook told the researchers their tool would violate the social network’s terms a year ago, before it launched.

The NYU Ad Observatory created a browser extension called Ad Observer that scrapes data from Facebook in a way that avoids the tech giant’s detection systems, said Clark, claiming some of that data was not publicly viewable on the site.

“Today’s action doesn’t change our commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia,” Clark insisted.

The FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

So now privacy’s a thing?

In a phone interview with The Register, Ashkan Soltani, a privacy researcher and former Federal Trade Commission technologist, dismissed Facebook’s justification and the idea that the consent decree requires such drastic action.

“It’s selective enforcement,” he said, noting that Facebook often permits other analytics tools on their websites. “Yet again Facebook is trying to use privacy to fulfill a policy goal of reducing transparency around ad serving.”

The reason Facebook would do so, he said, is that the company has faced a lot of criticism around how it targets ads, and not just political ads, which the NYU researchers are studying.

FB’s stance, he said, is particularly ironic given its failure to defend against the scraping of actual consumer data that produced the massive spillage of personal info from 533m Facebook accounts in April.

The Ad Observer extension, he said, isn’t collecting personal information about Facebook users. It’s collecting information about ads that are meant to be shown publicly.

Mozilla said as much back in October last year when Facebook initially threatened to block Ad Observer. “Facebook claims its motive for threatening Ad Observer is that browser plugins and extensions, like Ad Observer, could violate Facebook users’ privacy,” Moz said in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“But Ad Observer only collects information about the ads people see, not personal posts or users’ personal information. What is true is that the Ad Observatory project has revealed serious flaws in Facebook’s advertising transparency policies.”

According to the NYU Ad Observatory, the Ad Observer extension collects: the advertiser’s name and disclosure string; the ad’s text, image, and link; the information Facebook provides about how the ad was targeted; when the ad was shown to you; and your browser language. The project claims it does not collect any identifying or personal information.

“[Ad Observer] essentially pulls back the veil on their underlying algorithms,” said Soltani, adding that regulators have a legitimate interest in such information. “The HUD investigation was made possible through this type of analysis.”

In 2018, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook for discriminatory advertising [PDF]. Facebook settled the charges a year later, agreeing to make changes to its ad system.

Researchers involved in the project – an attempt to expose social media threats to democracy – promptly denounced the move.

Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate at NYU said, “Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation.”

“By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project.”

Other academics involved in the project expressed similar dissatisfaction.

It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform

“It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform,” said Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, in a statement.

“With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down. Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest.”

So too did politicians, like US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA).

“This latest action by Facebook to cut off an outside group’s transparency efforts – efforts that have repeatedly facilitated revelations of ads violating Facebook’s Terms of Service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook’s lackluster Ad Library – is deeply concerning,” said Warner in a statement, urging legislative action to deal with “shadowy world of online advertising.”

Despite years of calling on social media platforms to work with independent researchers to improve platform integrity, he said, Facebook appears to have done the opposite.

The political pique rippled across the pond, prompting UK MP Damian Collins to state, “Facebook is closing down legitimate academic research into targeted advertising on its platform. This shows once again that they are more concerned about protecting their interests than allowing independent scrutiny of how their ad tools are used & abused.” ®

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Facebook oversight board to review system that exempts elite users | Facebook

Voice Of EU



Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.

The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.

Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.

Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.

The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.

The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.

The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.

Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.

A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.

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Philippines imposes 12 per cent digital services tax • The Register

Voice Of EU



The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.

Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.

The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.

“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.

Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.

“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.

However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.

Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.

The Philippines is not alone in introducing a digital services tax to raise more revenue after the COVID-19 pandemic hurt government revenue – Indonesia used the same logic in 2020 .

But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.

The USA has backed that view of digital services taxes, by announcing it will impose tariffson nations that introduce them – but is yet to enact that plan.

Meanwhile, the process of creating a global approach to multinational tax shenanigans is taking years to agree and implement.

But The Philippines wants more cash in its coffers – and to demonstrate that local businesses aren’t being disadvantaged – ASAP. ®

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How to ask your boss for more flexible working

Voice Of EU



While returning to the office is now possible for many, some workers might still want the option of flexible working some of the time. Here’s how to broach the subject.

This week marked the beginning of a phased and staggered return to workplaces for many employees in Ireland.

It essentially marked the first official green light for employers to ready their offices and start putting plans in place for their staff’s return.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

However, HR body CIPD Ireland urged employers to be mindful of anxious workers as they face “another round of upheaval” with the return to offices.

So, while employers are finalising plans about how, where and when their teams will work, some employees may be wondering how to go about expressing their preference, worried that it’s not in line with what the company wants.

While there have been plenty of discussions and remote work advocates calling for leaders to be more flexible and recognise that the future of work will be hybrid, the reality for individual employees can feel very different.

While big-picture debates around the right to request remote work are happening, how do you ask for what you want in the here and now, when your boss is determined to have a full return to the office?

Explain your reasons

If remote or flexible working isn’t something your boss is already willing to give you, then you must treat it like a pay rise request.

Explain clearly and concisely the reasons why you want more flexibility, how it will benefit you and make you a more engaged, happier worker.

While family commitments might be an important factor, so too is work-life balance and getting rid of long commutes. And, while there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Covid-19 is still a very real concern, so don’t be afraid to express your reservations about this too.

Make a business case

When you ask for a pay increase, you provide proof of the value you have added to the company. Take the same approach here and explain to your boss how flexible working will actually be beneficial to them.

Some managers who resist remote working might still have an office-based mentality where presenteeism is key. But there are numerous studies that show that knowledge workers are more productive when working remotely.

And, when done as a purposeful business strategy, remote working can help teams prioritise work more clearly as well as allowing for more downtime and work-life balance.

Be realistic

Depending on your manager, your team and the work you do, it may not be feasible to ask to work from home five days a week.

It’s important that you are realistic about asking for what you want and also realistic about what you can deliver in return. Remote workers can be more productive but they can also be in danger of burning out so be thoughtful about what strategy will work best for both you and your manager.

Listen to their perspective

While conversations around remote working appear to be mostly positive, it can be a different situation behind the office doors.

Many managers and leaders are still hesitant about moving to a fully flexible working strategy and this can lead to workers feeling like they are not being listened to.

However, one of the best ways to combat that hesitancy from managers is to listen to their concerns and address them in a problem-solving manner.

Being able to alleviate some of your manager’s worries might make them more amenable to allowing for more flexibility.

Make expectations clear

If you do convince your boss to allow for a more flexible working plan than what they had originally considered, it’s important that both sides understand what is expected.

Without clearly defining the outcomes of the new set-up, misunderstandings can lead to disappointments and feelings of mistrust in the idea of flexible working.

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