Australia to make Google and Facebook disclose ranking algorithms and pay for local content

Months of negotiation on voluntary code of conduct didn’t make progress


Australia will force social media companies to pay for content shared on their networks and disclose details of the algorithms that determine what their users see.

The decision comes after Australia conducted a Digital Platforms Inquiry that in 2019 delivered a final report concluding that Google and Facebook have distorted local media and advertising markets in ways that make it hard for publishers to monetise their content.

The inquiry called for development of a voluntary code of conduct that would see some cash flow from social networks to publishers but the consultation process to develop that code appears not to have gone well. Which brings us today, when Australian Treasurer* Josh Frydenberg wrote: “On the fundamental issue of payment for content, which the code was seeking to resolve, there was no meaningful progress and, in the words of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ‘no expectation of any even being made’.”

Out with the negotiators, then, and in with the lawyers to draft some laws.

Frydenberg said we can expect the following:

The code will include a number of provisions, including those related to value exchange and revenue sharing; transparency of ranking algorithms; access to user data; presentation of news content; and the penalties and sanctions for non-compliance.

The Treasurer noted that in two other nations that have tried similar laws – Spain and France - Google respectively closed its News service and refused to comply. Australia will proceed regardless.

“We are not seeking to protect traditional media companies from the rigour of competition or technological disruption,” he said. “Rather, to create a level playing field where market power is not misused, companies get a fair go and there is appropriate compensation for the production of original news content.”

What’s going on here?

Frydenberg’s action is both playing to his base and an attempt to restructure the market.

The decision plays to his base because the Liberal Party of Australia of which he is a member is the nation’s conservative party. As such it is generally in favor at Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which dominates the Australian media market.

News has spent years arguing that digital giants must be reined in even as it decided to paywall its established mastheads while also operating a free-to-access volume-oriented news site. Frydenberg will not get much criticism from News Limited for this decision.

News will get some cover from the decision. The company is in trouble in Australia. Its pay television arm is bleeding and an attempt to create a Netflix-for-sport has under-performed and is now bereft of new content thanks to the novel coronavirus. The Australian, the national broadsheet that was Rupert Murdoch’s first big bet, has lost money for years. The company also recently stopped the presses on numerous local newspapers, citing revenue downturns caused by COVID-19. Now it can point to government action about internet giants as evidence its woes are not all of its own making.

(That News has not simply made itself scraper-proof with heavy use of robots.txt and other means, and is therefore trying to benefit from social media aggregation even as it criticises it, is seldom mentioned in polite company.)

Australia's other big publishers are also bleeding. So between News' overt criticism of Google and Facebook, other media companies' quieter lobbying and ongoing concern about Big Tech's tax arrangements, there will be no political downside to this decision.

The attempt to restructure the market is a reaction is more nuanced. Frydenberg points out that Google has 47 percent online advertising market share and that plenty of that derives from its stewardship of Android.

Left unmentioned is that Australia’s media fundamentally misunderstood the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Publishers’ early online efforts focused on content distribution rather than converting their advertising operations into online properties. The likes of eBay, Google and Facebook feasted on the vacuum created as consumers realised that search-driven classified advertisements available 24x7 was a rather better experience than poring through piles of printed classified ads. Australian publishers did manage to retain some real estate and car advertising, and have done well with those ventures. But nowhere near well enough to offset the fields in which they were outplayed.

Frydenberg’s announcement also contains no mention of changing laws for the video streaming operators. Australian broadcasters are required to produce local content. Funds that flow to local productions have helped to create a local industry capable of hosting productions like The Matrix trilogy and The Lego Movie. While Frydenberg repeatedly uses the term “level playing field” in today’s announcement, the likes of Netflix and Disney+ have so far escaped regulation. Today is therefore all about the optics of big bad Google and Facebook making life hard for plucky news-hounds - even as Australia's government pursues a News Limited journalist for having broken a story about plans for expanded domestic activities for the nation's signals intelligence agency.

How will the social giants react? In their submissions to the inquiry Facebook and Google both said they offer a way for publishers to grow their audiences and find new revenue sources. Both also pointed to programs that aim to assist and/or fund publishers. However your humble hack was in 2018 invited to a Google seminar about that effort. Speaking to an audience of consumer and trade magazine publishers and born-digital mastheads, the company explained its intention to mostly assist community news. The rest of us were left to fend for ourselves and reminded that Google shares revenue with publishers that host its ads. The sandwiches were nice, though.

Australia’s legislation is due in July. Hopefully by then it’s less of a welcome distraction from a certain virus! ®

* Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Secretary of the Treasury


Intel CPU interconnects can be exploited by malware to leak encryption keys and other info, academic study finds

Side-channel ring race 'hard to mitigate with existing defenses'

Chip-busting boffins in America have devised yet another way to filch sensitive data by exploiting Intel's processor design choices.

Doctoral student Riccardo Paccagnella, master's student Licheng Luo, and assistant professor Christopher Fletcher, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delved into the way CPU ring interconnects work, and found they can be abused for side-channel attacks. The upshot is that one application can infer another application's private memory and snoop on the user's key presses.

"It is the first attack to exploit contention on the cross-core interconnect of Intel CPUs," Paccagnella told The Register. "The attack does not rely on sharing memory, cache sets, core-private resources or any specific uncore structures. As a consequence, it is hard to mitigate with existing side channel defenses."

Side-channel attacks, like the 2018 Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, exploit characteristics of modern chip microarchitecture to expose or infer secrets through interaction with a shared computing component or resource.

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SolarWinds just keeps getting worse: New strain of backdoor malware found in probe

Plus: McAfee's in serious trouble over claimed cryptocurrency scam

In brief Another form of malware has been spotted on servers backdoored in the SolarWinds' Orion fiasco.

The strain, identified as SUNSHUTTLE by FireEye, is a second-stage backdoor written in Go which uses HTTPS to communicate with a command-and-control server for data exfiltration, adding new code as needed. Someone based in the US, perhaps at an infected organization, uploaded the malware to a public malware repository in August last year for analysis, well before the cyber-spying campaign became public.

Brandon Wales, acting director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, warned it could take 18 months to clean up this mess, and that's looking increasingly likely.

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Linus Torvalds issues early Linux Kernel update to fix swapfile SNAFU

‘Subtle and very nasty bug’ meant 5.12 rc1 could trash entire filesystems

Linux overlord Linus Torvalds has rushed out a new release candidate of Linux 5.12 after the first in the new series was found to include a ‘subtle and very nasty bug’ that was so serious he marked rc1 as unsuitable for use.

“We had a very innocuous code cleanup and simplification that raised no red flags at all, but had a subtle and very nasty bug in it: swap files stopped working right. And they stopped working in a particularly bad way: the offset of the start of the swap file was lost,” Torvalds wrote in a March 3rd post to the Linux Kernel Mailing List.

“Swapping still happened, but it happened to the wrong part of the filesystem, with the obvious catastrophic end results.”

So catastrophic that, as Torvalds explained, “you can end up with a filesystem that is essentially overwritten by random swap data.”

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Remember that day in March 2020 when you were asked to get the business working from home – tomorrow, if possible? Here's how that worked out

IT pros from orgs large and small tell The Reg the tech delivered, mostly, but couriers and home Wi-Fi suddenly became your problem

Covid Logfile Brianna Haley was given one day to be ready to roll out Zoom for 13,000 users at over 1,000 sites.

Haley* is a project analyst for a large healthcare provider that, as COVID-19 marched across the world in March 2020, realised imminent lockdowns meant it would soon be unable to consult with patients.

And no consultations meant no revenue.

"I got called into a meeting at 7:30 or 8:30 on Monday morning and was told we had to get Zoom done by tomorrow," Haley recalls.

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The torture garden of Microsoft Exchange: Grant us the serenity to accept what they cannot EOL

Time to fix those legacy evils, though.... right?

Column It is the monster which corrupts all it touches. It is an energy-sucking vampire that thrives on the pain it promotes. It cannot be killed, but grows afresh as each manifestation outdoes the last in awfulness and horror. It is Microsoft Exchange and its drooling minion, Outlook.

Let us start with the most numerous of its victims, the end users. Chances are, you are one. You may be numbed by lifelong exposure, your pain receptors and critical faculties burned out though years of corrosion. You might be like me, an habitual avoider whose work requirements periodically force its tentacles back in through the orifices.

I have recently started to use it through its web interface, where it doesn’t update the unread flags, hides attachments, multiplies browser instances, leaves temp files all over my download directory, tangles threads, botches searchers and so on.

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Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy a beer: Beware the downloaded patch applied in haste

Let us tell you a tale of the Mailman's Apprentice

Who, Me? The weekend is over and Monday is here. Celebrate your IT prowess with another there-but-for-the-grace confession from the Who, Me? archives.

Our tale, from a reader the Regomiser has elected to dub "Simon", takes us back to the early part of this century and to an anonymous antipodean institution of learning.

Simon was working at the local Student Union (or "guild" as the locals called it), which was having problems with uppity education staff censoring the emissions of students. Simon was therefore commissioned to set up a fully independent newsletter.

"We had scored access to the Oracle user database," he said, "but only via the awful Filemaker Mac database. So I built a bridge to export it out to MySQL.

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US National Security Council urges review of Exchange Servers in wake of Hafnium attack

Don't just patch, check for p0wnage, says top natsec team

The Biden administration has urged users of Microsoft's Exchange mail and messaging server to ensure they have not fallen victim to the recently-detected "Hafnium" attack on Exchange Server that Microsoft says originated in China.

Microsoft revealed the attack last week and released Exchange security updates.

The Biden administration’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) followed up with a March 5 general advisory encouraging upgrades to on-premises Exchange environments. Another advisory on 6 March upped the ante as follows:

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Delayed, overbudget and broken. Of course Microsoft's finest would be found in NASA's Orion

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream (as Windows crashes again)

BORK!BORK!BORK! Getting astronauts to the Moon or Mars is the least of NASA's problems. Persuading Microsoft Windows not to fall over along the way is apparently a far greater challenge.

Spotted by Register reader Scott during a visit to the otherwise excellent Space Center Houston, there is something all too real lurking within the mock-up of the Orion capsule in which NASA hopes to send its astronauts for jaunts beyond low Earth orbit.

Clutched in the hand of a mannequin posed in the capsule's hatch is a reminder of both how old space tech tends to be and a warning for space-farers intending to take Microsoft's finest out for a spin.

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NASA shows Mars that humans can drive a remote control space tank at .01 km/h

Perseverance takes first drive around landing spot named in honor of seminal sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler

NASA’s Perseverance rover trekked across Mars for the first time last Thursday, March 4, 2021.

The vehicle went four whole meters forward, turned 150 degrees to the left, then moved another two-and-a-half meters. The entire drive covered a whopping 6.5 m (21.3 feet) across Martian terrain. The journey took about 33 minutes.

The Register ran that through a calculator and deduces the nuclear powered laser-equipped space tank, aka Perseverance, sped along at the astounding velocity of .01km/h, quite a comedown from the 19,310 km/h at which it entered the red planet’s atmosphere.

In a press release, NASA said:

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University of the Highlands and Islands shuts down campuses as it deals with 'ongoing cyber incident'

Ten letters, starts with R, ends with E, three syllables

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland is fending off "an ongoing cyber incident" that has shut down its campuses.

In a message to students and staff yesterday afternoon, the institution, which spans 13 locations across the northernmost part of the UK, warned that "most services" – including its Brightspace virtual learning environment – were affected.

"We are currently working to isolate and minimise impact from this incident with assistance from external partners. We do not believe personal data has been affected," said the university, adding: "The source of the incident is not yet known."

An email sent to students and published on UHI's website said that its Office 365, Cisco Webex, OneDrive, Teams, and email services, among others, were not affected by the apparent intrusion. Administrators reiterated they didn't believe personal data had been affected.

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