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Hullaballoo.com is a recent arrival in the highly competitive on-line news business. The business is (a) registered and (b) website hosted in a country that does not recognize international law governing such matters as privacy protection, censorship etc. Jimmy Olsen is a recent graduate of IT on the look-out for a job. He sees an ad for a web-developer and applies.
Hullaballoo is looking for someone to work remotely on developing the newspaper’s website. Jimmy is successful in securing the job; the pay is above average for a 25 hour per week commitment working virtually. Everything seems good, at least on the surface. Purveyors of Fake News. Before long, Jimmy realizes that Hullaballoo’s journalistic standards are low. Stories are published that at best lack the proper fact-checking. At worst, they are blatantly false. They peddle fake news with clickbait headlines ranging from, “the Pope endorses Donald Trump” all the way to “Hilary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop.” Jimmy is uncomfortable with being part of putting misinformation into the world, but he needs the job, so he swallows his concerns and carries on with developing the website as a vehicle for fake news delivery. The Sinister Parent. Jimmy decides to do some digging into Hullaballoo’s background. A talented cyber-sleuth, before long he discovers that his employer is owned by a multi-national Marketing company with clients ranging from political parties (particularly when running election campaigns) and advertising agencies in the business of selling consumer goods and services. Now the context of the fake news stories comes into focus. Hullaballoo is paid to generate positive publicity for their client and negative publicity for the client’s competitor.
Jimmy notices that some of the news stories make favourable mention of the same companies who buy advertising with them. He learns that this practice is called “Native Advertising” where an advertisement masquerades as a news story. Native advertising is largely a response to more and more people using adblockers on their web browsers. Don’t Fear the Reaper. Hullaballoo’s parent company has created an integrated database that receives demographic information from its diverse subsidiaries. There are twenty other on-line publications across a wide variety of interests and sectors that belong to the group and which contribute to this growing demographic database known in-house as “The Reaper”. This detailed demographic information is very valuable as it allows advertisers and marketers to conduct highly targeted campaigns. Jimmy is put to work customising Hullaballoo’s website to get people to sign up for a free subscription and receive a daily newsletter or weekly digest.
But the sign-up web-form asks for much more detailed information than they need for a simple newsletter subscription. In addition to a verified email address, It asks for people’s age, gender, marital status, how many in their household, interests & hobbies, the postcode for where they live, annual income. They cannot complete the subscription unless all of these are provided. This is explained by a simple statement to the effect that this information helps Hullaballoo to tailor their newsletters to people’s interests. Informed Consent? What is not made clear is that this demographic information goes into a centralised database (Reaper) where it will be used over and over and even sold to third parties to use at their own discretion.
Buried deep in the Terms & Conditions – a 2000 word legal document that the user must click “Accept” to proceed – is that “Hullaballoo reserves the right to sell information to third parties at their sole discretion”. Apparently this satisfies the legal (but what about ethical?) requirement for informed consent. Jimmy raises his concerns with his boss but is told “don’t worry about it – standard boilerplate text”. He suggested that it would be better to state clearly that by entering their details, the information might subsequently be used to contact people about deals and offers. He said this was the better way to do informed consent. His boss said “better? … better for who?” Jimmy was directed to put the information in the legal notice.
Hacktivism. Later that year, the Reaper database is hacked and downloaded – complete with 129 million records of people from 53 countries. Not long after the chatter on 4chan-Anonymous makes it known that the database can be acquired for Bitcoins equating to 20,000 US Dollars.
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