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The Internet of Nudes — is this what we wished for?

December 14, 2014

The widespread release of nude photographs across the internet is not confined to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence – sexy “selfies” are going “viral” among teenagers too.

In just a couple months between August and October 2014, thousands of hacked digital photographs – many of them of naked or semi-dressed young people and celebrities – found their way into the public domain.

sexy selfie meme

The typical chain of events involved some geeky hackers announcing that they’d accessed some kind of online storage space that was supposed to be under secure digital lock and key, and were going to upload racy and compromising photographs to somewhere on the web where anyone with an internet browser would be able to see them.

Images of nude celebrities form a kind of sick digital currency in some murky corners of the internet. On sites like 4chan and Reddit there are (or at least were) publicly accessible threads with names like “The Fappening” where such images were posted. The people who posted them – usually anonymously – were considered the coolest hackers because of their ability to forage around and steal the images from mobile phones or other sources.

Both Reddit and 4chan had “rules” that supposedly prevented illegally obtained or copyright-breaching images being uploaded, but the rules were pretty much ignored by everyone involved until a big public scandal drew attention to them.

For the people who break into smartphones or cloud storage servers to steal the private images there is kudos and ego-satisfying status in the hacker community; for the (largely) pubescent male viewers there is the prospect of sexual titillation and the excitement of sharing in something a little bit dirty and a whole lot of illegal.

However, for the celebrities whose images are stolen there is only anger and potentially embarrassment.

Many of the young stars were outraged, and the public backlash against the hackers was severe. Star of the Hunger Games movie franchise, Jennifer Lawrence, was particularly outspoken. She called the hacking a sexual assault and several other victims of the hack – who were mainly young, attractive women – joined her condemnation of everyone who posted and reposted the images.

In a long interview published in the October 2014 edition of Vanity Fair, Lawrence spoke of her anger and embarrassment, but she also stood up for her right to participate in the taking of the images and to share them with her partner:

The 24-year-old actress had not previously commented on the incident, but she spoke to [Vanity Fair journalist, Sam] Kashner at length about the anger she felt. “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she says. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.

Lawrence also lashed the celebrity gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, who had been one of the first to repost the stolen images of Lawrence and others. Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

He took it down because people got pissed, and that’s the only reason why. And then I had to watch his apology. And what he basically said was, ‘I just didn’t think about it.’ ‘I just didn’t think about it’ is not an excuse. That is the exact issue itself.

It was a scathing attack on Hilton who has made himself as famous and rich as the celebrities he targets on his website. Hilton had already apologised for putting up the hacked nude photographs, and he went further in an interview saying that he would not do it again and that he realised he’d made a terrible ethical mistake in originally republishing the photos. Perhaps Hilton was feeling so contrite because the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper in the UK was still so fresh in the public’s memory .

When asked what prompted his change of stance about publishing intimate celebrity photos, Hilton told website Digital Spy: “I look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn. I made a mistake and instead of not doing anything I decided not to post any photos of anybody like that going forward, which I haven’t.”

Perez also told Digital Spy that having a child of his own made him more conscious of how his behaviour might affect other people: “I’ve been trying to do better and be better for four years now. I’m not perfect, I’m not trying to be, but it’s a constant journey and a process.”

The dump of nude celebrity images, reportedly stolen from their iCloud accounts, was not the first incident of its kind, but the outcry seems to have been more effective this time in shutting it down. But it won’t perhaps prevent it from happening again.

In the age of television shows like Big Brother, The Bachelor and Dating Naked encouraging all of us to be voyeurs on the private moments of people subject to constant surveillance for our pleasure, it his not hard to believe that more hacks and more photo-dumps will occur.

At the end of the day the commercial success of “pervy” television means that while there’s a buck to be made from voyeuristic surveillance, others will try to cash in. Not only that, many of us consider celebrities fair game; they make their money from exposure and from selling themselves – via television, movies, music videos or their own self-promotion of “branded” material – so they shouldn’t be surprised when our interest in their private lives goes beyond what they might be contractually obliged to share with us.

This doesn’t make it ethically “OK” for us to download their hacked images for our own viewing pleasure, nor does it justify sleazy ex-partners or former friends from selling their “sex tape” escapades to pornographers – but it does explain why it still happens. Sex sells, and illicit sex sells for an even higher price. There will always be unscrupulous people willing to exploit weaknesses in human nature, or digital exploits on secure servers.

I find it hard not to agree with Jennifer Lawrence: hacking is like breaking into someone’s house to steal from them. When the images that are stolen are personal and private then it does become a sex crime, as Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.

Everybody’s doing it: What could go wrong?

It’s not only celebrities whose private images are stolen; it can happen to anyone. In early October 2014 it was widely reported that users of the mobile social app Snapchat had also been caught in a targeted hacking operation that meant potentially tens of thousands of people were going to see their private photos made public.

selfy screen grabThis event, in which perhaps close to 100,000 images were uploaded to a public server, has been dubbed the “Snappening”, a semantic cross-reference to the celebrity hack the “Fappening”. The issue here is that many of the stolen images were of young teenagers, many of them under 18 years old. This created the added danger that anyone sharing or accessing the images could be accused of transmitting or downloading child pornography – a very, very serious offence.

This is a curious story because the popular Snapchat app allows users to send images and short videos to each other, but the program deletes them after a short period of time. However, there are third-party apps that work with Snapchat to allow users to save files forwarded to them without the sender’s knowledge. According to news reports it was one of these apps, Snapsaved, that was actually hacked and where the images were leaked from.

It’s not entirely clear if the leaked images did or did not make it onto a public website but, if they were, they were quickly taken down. What we do know is that the notorious 4chan community was again involved, although some users claim that it, too, was hoaxed by the original scammers.

Snapchat is incredibly popular with young users – about 50% of its estimated 30 million users are aged 13–17. To protect its reputation, the company is aggressively attempting to have apps like Snapsave shut down.

A Snapchat spokeswoman told The Huffington Post: “We can confirm that Snapchat’s servers were never breached and were not the source of these leaks.

“Snapchatters were victimised by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise our users’ security,” the spokeswoman said.

However, it’s not always anonymous geeky hackers who breach our trust. A Sydney University student was recently disciplined for sharing images of a semi-naked female colleague with his friends. He had taken the picture during a consensual sexual encounter with the woman, but without her consent. The picture was then circulated among the man’s friends.

In the United States, 31 teenagers at a high school near Detroit are being investigated in a widespread “sexting” scandal. According to police investigating the case, the practice of teenagers sending and receiving nude or semi-nude images of each other is “widespread”.

Attorney Shannon Smith told the Detroit News: “This is happening everywhere, it’s over the top. I have been contacted by schools and parents elsewhere in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties who have found similar photos on their children’s cellphones and want to know what to do about it.”

Well, perhaps there’s a difference between consensual sexting and hacking someone’s phone or private server, but if images are being shared then they are probably circulating to a wider group than the original sender intended. Officials are also worried about people being put under pressure, even bullied, into participating.

Surely there’s got to be a lesson in this somewhere, but what is it? Well, it’s easy for me – a middle-aged academic who doesn’t use Snapchat or post nude selfies on iCloud – to say: “Don’t post nude selfies!” However, I realise that such advice sounds trite and that thousands, if not millions, of people ignore it every day. However, there is some point in being careful about your privacy in online and social media environments.

If someone does feel pressured into sexting then they should certainly be telling someone about it. Under any circumstances, “No!” must mean exactly that. Nobody should be bullied into doing anything they don’t want to do.

The famous whistleblower (of, if you’re the American government, the infamous traitor) Edward Snowden recently gave his version of my advice at a conference he was asked to speak at. According to Snowden, everyone who cares about their digital privacy should stay away from popular consumer internet services like Dropbox, Facebook and Google.

“Facebook and Google! OMG! That’s a disaster, right?” Yes, I know that’s what you’re all thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How can anyone live today without being on Facebook or using Dr Google to answer all our difficult questions?

Well, Snowden thinks we should all be using encryption tools and finding online and social media services that support encryption. You can also use anonymous routers to disguise your location from prying eyes on the web too. And don’t forget to delete your browser history whenever you’ve finished surfing the web.

Of course, encrypting phone messages, emails or Skype chats only works if the person you’re communicating with is also using the encryption service. Once a message is encrypted (i.e. scrambled so that nobody can read it) it has to be unscrambled at the other end. This is not yet an easy and everyday thing for us to do. It is complicated and can be expensive, but maybe it is what we all have to consider.

Maybe if Jennifer Lawrence and the other hacked celebrities had been using an encrypted cloud server nobody would have been able to access their files, or at least not been able to unscramble them to share with anyone else.

But if you’re sending sexy selfies to your beau, then encrypting them is going to take the “sexy” out for sure. The problem is perhaps that we have to trust other people in order to keep our secrets safe – and that isn’t always possible.

The best thing is to be careful, remember that privacy is your right and only you can consent to it being breached.

First published in Issues magazine, December 2014

Issues109


Apology to EM’s colleagues, friends and supporters

July 10, 2014

On April 15 & 16 this year, I engaged in a series of exchanges on Twitter.

It is essential that academics are prepared and willing to engage in robust debate about matters of public or academic importance, without fear of the consequences for them in doing so.

However, I recognise that the tone and content of my tweeted remarks was inappropriate for a scholar engaging in public discussion, and could readily be used by others to attack the reputation of Deakin University.

For this I apologise to my colleagues at the University, anyone offended by any of my tweeted comments, and to those who might expect a higher level of decorum when scholars are involved.


Yahoo! Here comes the new news

November 30, 2013

It’s been an interesting week in the new business, both globally and here in Australia.

At home some new start-ups, including another import from the UK. This time it’s the Daily Mail announcing an Australian edition. One Twitterati quipped that this would at least provide some much-needed competition in the right-wing junk journalism stakes currently dominated by The Australian.

But on the downside, one or two less happy stories of ailing start-ups and mooted closures.

On the world stage, it seems that Yahoo’s new business model is taking shape, following the surprise announcement that the NASDAQ-listed search and mobile App tech-giant has hired a group of well-known and high-profile journalists and editors to staff its own news portal.

The key hire is the award-winning and sometimes controversial Katie Couric, who will leave the American ABC network to join Yahoo. According to Yahoo, Couric will host a monthly interview program on the portal, but few details are available beyond that.

But why would a second-ranked search engine and internet portal want to buy into news and serious journalism?

The investment in Katie Couric and senior reporters from The New York Times signals that Yahoo wants to move into Web TV and take on the the giants of American network and cable television, and perhaps even Netflix, which is rumoured to also be looking at an Australian launch next year.

In recent months Yahoo, which is valued at around US$35 billion, has made a series of takeovers, mainly of Internet start-ups like the picture-blogging site Tumblr. But analysts think that it is still figuring out how to turn a profit from these acquisitions.

Tellingly, Yahoo’s share of online advertising (about 7%) is still behind Facebook (8%).

Recruiting Couric to be the new face of Yahoo’s news operation is an attempt to get a stock market bounce and attract eyeballs, which in turn should attract advertisers.

The key question though is where will those eyeballs be? In recent statements Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, has said the company’s future is in mobile delivery.

However, mobile is “the right path” to be on according to Mayer, rather than an instant boost to advertising revenues. Digital plays take a while to turn from money sinks into profit centres.

Australia: following the leader?

Australia is following the bigger US and UK markets in seeing a wave of new start-up news providers both entering and leaving the market, which is creating both excitement and apprehension among journalists looking for new opportunities and among news consumers looking for something a bit more palatable.

Here at home this week, a new news start-up arrived and one recent entrant is in difficulties. In the past ten days or so, three new news publishers have announced their arrival in the Australian news market.

The biggest fish to enter the Australian news pond, since The Guardian six months ago, is the British-based conservative tabloid, The Daily Mail. Just this week it announced the imminent arrival of dailymail.com.au. It is a joint venture with Nine Entertainment, the Mail’s online arm dmg media and mi9 (a digital spin-off from the Nine group). There’s been very little said so far about who will head up the Australian operation, but its reported that up to 50 editorial positions will be created.

Two smaller and homegrown publications are launching into the Australian market; The New Daily and The Saturday Paper. The Saturday Paper will feature long-form journalism and will be published by Morry Schwartz (pubisher of The Monthly). Schwartz hopes it will be profitable with an initial printed circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000.

The New Daily recently launched entirely online and is financed by three major players in the Australian superannuation industry. The managing editor is former Fairfax and News Limited editor, Bruce Guthrie. The New Daily is running an advertising model and, like the imported Daily Mail, is not going behind a paywall. The New Daily’s backers hope it will be profitable within three to five years.

On the downside, Politifact, a fact-checking and independent journalism venture founded by former Fairfax editor Peter Fray has announced severe downsizing and possible closure as the sponsors who came on board during the 2013 federal election wind-down their commitment to the project. Politifact was based on an American model that calls out politicians for mis-statements and gives them a “truth-o-meter” rating. If it sounds like a gimmick, maybe it was, as the site only lasted seven months in Australia. Politifact is currently running on a skeleton staff and seeking new sources of funding.

The digital dilemma: How to make money from content

The question of how profits can be made from online news has several answers, but none yet a proven winner.

A recent American news start up NSFW Corp, which billed itself as “The Economist written by the Daily Show”, has this week closed its print edition and folded its digital business into another company, which is, itself, still reliant on angel investors from Silicon Valley.

And here lies the dilemma for the big global brands like Yahoo and The Daily Mail and for the more modest local start-ups, particularly those with a focus on serious journalism. NSFW Corp attempted to combine serious with hip and ironic, but that hasn’t worked out and perhaps the market for serious journalism is not where we think it should be.

On top of that uncertainty, the process for monetising the digital click-stream, whether on the desktop or via mobile devices, is still a large known unknown.

Television still dominates the global advertising market, while print advertising is in decline. On the other side of the ledger, digital revenues are not yet strong enough to support a reliable profit stream. NSFW Corp was offering a niche product and it was behind a paywall; not quite the same as ad-supported content, but another example of trial and serious error when it comes to financially-modelling new news.

Yahoo has a model that relies on volume-selling online and mobile advertising, but at a fraction of the price that print or broadcasting can command. The difficulty is that when you do this, the slice of total revenue you take from the cake has to be substantially bigger than your rivals if you are to survive and make a profit.

So far, no one has come up with a content formula that stacks the eyeballs high enough to satisfy all comers; with or without a paywall. The booking agents currently have the upper hand in setting prices for online advertising.

Over at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer is a smart CEO, she has a strong track record in the digital economy (she was formerly at Google) and her sense is that this expanding digital giant will eventually make money from its investment in Couric and news content. However, it is not a given that her vision will succeed.

There are nervous investors, from Nasdaq to Australian superannuation schemes, that hope she’s right about Yahoo, because their fortunes will also hang on the uncertain success of this bold experiment and others like it.

[This is a slightly longer and edited version of a piece I wrote for The Conversation, published 30 November 2013]


Twitterville – as the name suggests

November 15, 2011

There’s something very cool and satisfying about Twitter. I actually think that as a tool for journalists it has the potential to be very valuable and I know that my colleagues (shoutout to @julieposetti) are doing some interesting work to integrate it into both newsrooms and the journalism curriculum.

But, I also know that the sound and fury of an unmoderated twitterfeed can be overwhelming and that the signal-to-noise ratio is very low.

I have written about this at some length in News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Interet? I use the example of the 2009 Iran uprising because the book was published before the Arab Spring.

I know that social media is a valuable tool for political organising, but it can be over-hyped. Revolutions are made on the street with real sweat and real blood; not in the cool vacuum of cyberspace.

I also know that, on the other side, dear old Laura Norder would like nothing better than to corral young people into a panopticon of digital surveillance and stop them from organising riots using their Blackberry and other mobile devices.

So, we have a long way to go before these issues are finally resolved. I call this the techno-legal time-gap: the dissonance between applications and regulation.

And no, I’m not calling for more regulation or laws to stop us using social media.

However, as the name suggests: there are some twits in the twitterverse.

I came across one today. And he/she confirms, for me anyway, my argument that sometimes people think that freedom of speech and expression is just the freedom to be insulting, rude or offensive.

May I introduce one of Twitterville’s many village idiots: @PropheticKleenx

Now this could be a really clever kid with a wicked sense of irony and humour: “Location: Roman controlled Australia”

But I don’t think so.

Anyway @PropheticKleenx sent me a series of unsolicited tweets today using my @ethicalmartini handle. Obviously, I’ve done something to upset this person.

You’d never guess what that might be!

I must admit I didn’t know that ‘history’ had proved Joe McCarthy was right about anything except that pink lipstick with a canary slip is so not right.

I am gob-smacked to hear that Crikey is a Jesuit publication; I thought it was home to fun-loving Trotsky-in-the-closet raggamuffins.

Nor was I across the news that ‘catholicism created communism’; I thought the term “Godless Communist” meant something entirely different.

But I get the drift: @PropheticKleenx doesn’t like me.

I get that. I’m no saint, but I’m not the ‘nadia comanice of casuistry’ either; and I’m not always proud of what I’ve done.

I did actually ‘tweet while tipsy’ a couple of weeks ago.

I am sorry @Joe_Hildebrand, but I did enjoy the ensuing verbal tennis.

But what can you do when someone wants to exercise their freedom of speech by bombarding you with almost unintelligible tweets?

Thankfully they’re only 140 characters.

And, as  I’m sure Kerry Packer used to say when people criticised the crap showing on his television station.

“If you don’t fucking like it, just turn the fucking thing off.”

He did that once to his own network in the middle of a program he didn’t like.

You can do the same with Twitterville; there’s a very useful ‘off’ switch that can stop serial pests from pestering you.

To take advantage of this very social social media function, simply go to the person’s Twitter profile and click on the’block’ button. You find it under the dropdown menu that looks like a head with an arrow down.

I just used it on @PropheticKleenx and it seems that I am not the only one s/he’s been harrassing.

Coincidentally, my mate @julieposetti had to do the same thing last week.

This really is a coincidence. I did not know about this when I started this post. I saw the block tweet from Julie only after I had completed the last step (blocking @PropheticKleenx myself)

I also recommend the same tactic for the witches of Facebook.


All a twitter over #superinjunction tweets. Advice to celebs “STFU”

May 21, 2011

So, the gloss is wearing off social media; the excitement is waning and the holy-roller experts are starting to sound like hollowed-out snakeoil sellers after a beating in the Dry Gulch town square.

We have been taken for a ride once too often. The world of celebrity tweets as a viral marketing tool may (hopefully) be over now that the super injunction scandal is hitting harder at so many British Nobs and Toffs.

But this stupid, Luddite old judge in the UK has got his judicial robes in a twist over the very obvious techno-legal time gap that has the Twitterverse all a-gush over trying to guess who’s got a super injunction in place preventing publication of details about their personal lives.

Attempts to identify a famous footballer hiding behind a privacy injunction have spiralled into an online battle over freedom of speech, as internet users responded to high court action by repeatedly naming him on Twitter.

The high court granted a search order against the US-based microblogging site on Friday as the lord chief justice, Lord Judge, warned that “modern technology was totally out of control” and called for those who “peddle lies” on the internet to be fined. (Guardian.co.uk)

It highlights once again the ever-widening void between rich and poor that super injunctions (whose very presence was itself suppressed until a few weeks ago) are available to those who can pay a high-priced whore-of-QC to front the Lords of the Court behind closed doors and tightly-drawn velvet curtains and get unsavoury details and incidents suppressed.

BTW: the footballer is apparently Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, but that’s just a rumour I picked up on Twitter. I’m willing to repeat it because I don’t really care. I think Ryan Giggs is a great player, but the whole idea of banning coverage in the media via an all-inclusive and secret gagging order is disgusting. On balance, naming the celebrities and public figures caught up in this is the least of sins.

Giggs apparently spent 50,000 pounds on the injunction reportedly to keep his name out of a sex scandal involving a woman called Imogen Thomas who seems to be famous for taking her clothes off in lad mags like Zoo and Loaded.

Ms Thomas working hard for the money

Giggs probably didn’t want his family to know about his affair with her.

Now Giggs has outed himself by suing Twitter, Ms Thomas and several Twitter users who named him in tweets. According to the Guardian, it is possible a tabloid news organisation first leaked his link with Thomas and the superinjunctions.

A PREMIERSHIP footballer is suing Twitter and several of its users after information that was supposed to be covered by a super-injunction was published on the micro-blogging site. (The Scotsman)

Giggs was named by Spanish media ahead of the Man U v Barca UEFA Champions’ League final next weekend. Perhaps a little pride and niggle in that?

All I can say to that is “Idiot”. Did Giggs really think that suing Twitter was going to shut this matter down.

It seems that Ms Thomas was a former Big Brother contestant and she is upset that Giggs was able to keep his name out of the papers while she is the centre of allegations she tried to blackmail the Premier League player.

‘Yet again my name and my reputation are being trashed while the man I had a relationship with is able to hide.

‘What’s more, I can’t even defend myself because I have been gagged. Where’s the fairness in that? What about my reputation?

‘If this is the way privacy injunctions are supposed to work then there’s something seriously wrong with the law.’ (Daily Mail)

But, wait it gets worse. Now grubby politicians are getting into the act of breaking suppression orders and super injunctions. A Liberal Democrat in the UK has used parliamentary privilege to attack a merchant bwanker for an alleged sexual dalliance.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge criticised MPs and peers for “flouting a court order just because they disagree with a court order or for that matter because they disagree with the law of privacy which Parliament has created”.

Yesterday Lib Dem peer Lord Stoneham used the protection of parliamentary privilege to reveal allegations that former RBS boss Sir Fred Goodwin had taken out a super injunction to conceal an affair with a colleague at the bank. (epolitix)

Why are these people so ashamed of what they’re doing? The fuckers (and they are at it like rabbits) should either stop shagging with people they’re not supposed to or learn to live with the consequences of their actions.

Are we over it yet?

The most sensible #superinjunction tweet

Some numbers that don’t add up

My colleague Joseph Peart put together some numbers for me regarding the use of Twitter and they are interesting.

Stats from Fortune magazine, May 2, 2011 (pp42 – 45). “Trouble @ Twitter” by Daniel Roberts

• 47% of those who have Twitter accounts are no longer active on the service.

• The time spent per month has dropped from 14min 6sec in 2010 to 12min 37sec in 2011. (Joseph Peart estimates that if usage continues to drop at 1 ½ minutes a year; by 2020, there will be no Twitter users.)

• 40% of Tweets come from a mobile device.

• 70% of Twitter accounts are based outside the U.S.

• 50% of active users access Twitter on more than one platform.

• Not all Twitter users are tweeters: less than 25% of users generate more than 90% of worldwide tweets.

• Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears have more Twitter followers that the entire populations of Sweden or Israel.

Then, from the book “Socialnomics” by Erik Qualman.

• We no longer search for the news the news finds us via social media.

• 96% of Millenials have joined a social network.

• Facebook tops Google for weekly traffic in the U.S.

• If Facebook were a country it would be the World’s 3rd largest.

• 60 million status updates happen on Facebook daily.

• 50% of mobile internet traffic in the UK is for Facebook

• It seems that Gen Y considers email passé, so some Unis have stopped distributing email addresses and are distributing eReaders, iPads and/or Tablets

• YouTube is the 2nd largest search engine in the world

• There are more than 200 million Blogs worldwide.


News 2.0 on the radio

February 6, 2011

A conversation with Colin Peacock on Mediawatch, 6 February 2011

I like talking to Colin Peacock. He interviewed me about News 2.0 today and it was very lively. I think I did a reasonable job.

 

On Public Address radio with Russell Brown and Damian Christie on 6 February 2011. Can journalism survive the Internet?