04 November 2011


The Australian Human Rights Commission has released its first report [PDF] in the aftermath of the 'ADFA WebCam Incident'.

The Inquiry's Terms of Reference involve review, report and recommendations regarding -
a) the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy with a particular focus on the adequacy and appropriateness of measures to: promote gender equality, ensure women’s safety, and to address and prevent sexual harassment and abuse, and sex discrimination

b) initiatives required to drive cultural change in the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy, including the adequacy and effectiveness of existing initiatives and of approaches to training, education, mentoring and development

c) the effectiveness of the cultural change strategies recommended by the Chief of the Defence Force Women’s Reference Group in the Women’s Action Plan including the implementation of these strategies across the Australian Defence Force
d) measures and initiatives required to improve the pathways for increased representation of women into the senior ranks and leadership of the Australian Defence Force

e) any other matters the Panel considers appropriate that are incidental to the above terms of reference.
The key findings are that the ADFA culture had improved significantly since the mid 1990s when there was a comprehensive review of ADFA’s Policies and Practices to Deal with Sexual Harassment and Sexual Offences (the 1998 Grey Review) which found a high level of unacceptable behaviour including sexual harassment and sexual offences. The current Review found that "many of the extreme cultural concerns documented in the Grey Review were no longer apparent" but that "further structural and cultural reform is necessary if ADFA is to become the excellent tri-Service training and academic institution it aspires to be. Excellence requires that ADFA has a strong culture of inclusiveness, fairness, transparency and learning". The Review found structural and cultural deficiencies which have implications for all cadets, particularly for women.

In particular -
a) Commitment to ADFA
There needs to be a strong reaffirmation of ADFA as the centre of excellence for tri-Service education and training for junior officers. ADFA espouses excellence, however it lacks a well-articulated purpose and a clear vision. This inhibits it from realising its potential and, significantly, from integrating equality, diversity and inclusion in a meaningful way. ....

b) Equity and diversity
The concepts of equity and diversity applied at ADFA are generally grounded in disciplinary and punitive processes and as a response to unacceptable behaviour. They are not used as overarching, positive values that can inform and enhance everyday practice. They are not linked to enhancing ADF capability.
ADFA should develop and articulate a clear, unambiguous and widely-disseminated statement about diversity, inclusion and gender equality that recognises the fundamental importance of women to the sustainability and capability of the wider ADF.

It is critical that equity and diversity education is separated from education about reporting unacceptable behaviour and the complaints process. Principles of equity, diversity and inclusion should be embedded into all of ADFA’s policies and practices and ethical leadership instruction. A strong commitment to equity, diversity and gender equality should be actively and visibly promoted by the ADF and ADFA senior leadership teams. This should be accompanied by an unequivocal condemnation of all forms of sexism, sexual harassment and violence against women.

Induction and ongoing education programs on equity and diversity which draw on realistic scenarios should be provided to ADFA staff and cadets. These should be developed and delivered collaboratively by ADFA and an expert educator. There are many visible male role models at ADFA and in the wider ADF. Senior and successful women are not as prominent. To address this, cadets and staff would benefit from regular forums where female role models, both from within and beyond the ADF, deliver presentations on their experiences.

ADFA should fully assess the effectiveness of equity and diversity education, and the diversity network with a view to improving and strengthening it. The success of education on these issues can only be achieved through changed attitudes and behaviours. To track such changes, it is critical that the effectiveness of education and training processes be evaluated against established indicators.

c) Selection, training and turnover of staff
The high turnover of Commandants and military staff has had a significant negative impact on ADFA’s leadership stability, continuity and organisational memory. This includes a detrimental impact on the implementation of policies and practices that affect all cadets, including women. Further, the Commandant has limited influence over which staff are posted to ADFA and has limited engagement with ADF Service Chiefs. The Review makes a number of recommendations which aim to address these issues.

The Review repeatedly heard that ADFA is not considered a prestigious posting for staff. This has an impact on staff commitment to ADFA and on the quality of educators and trainers. In order for ADFA to be Australia’s finest military training academy, the ADF’s three Services need to develop innovative strategies to attract and retain the best staff. Consideration should be given to separating rank and role to enable recruitment of a wider pool of quality educators and positive role models within ADFA. To raise the status of ADFA and staffing decisions, the Service Chiefs could regularly inform the CDF of each posting schedule.

Prior to being posted to ADFA, many military staff have not had experience as supervisors of mixed gender environments or supervision of young people. Induction training at ADFA does not provide staff with adequate tools to deal with the issues that may arise from managing young men and women. Further, induction training does not adequately provide for such principles as equity and diversity and gender equality to be embedded in the daily practice of staff and their interaction with cadets. The Review recommends a range of strategies to reform the induction and training processes of ADFA staff to improve their capacity in these areas. The Review also recommends that quality performance by ADFA staff should be a positive discriminator for career progression.

d) Cadets as young people
Cadets, apart from the midshipmen, generally come to ADFA soon after completing high school. Many have not lived away from home before and many have not had any experience in a military setting. The Navy has instituted the Navy Officer Year One Program (NOYO) for midshipmen prior to commencing at ADFA. The Review heard consistent evidence that cadets from the other services would benefit from a similar program as this would develop their maturity and commitment to their chosen profession. A one year immersion experience could support the maturation process, as midshipmen and cadets prepare to commence their undergraduate studies. The Review recommends that options for service-wide programs should be completed within 12 months of the release of this Report. The preferred option should be implemented in 2013 in readiness for the 2014 cadet intake.

Given their differing levels of maturity and the stressors cadets may experience as they embark on their military training and career, many would benefit from regular mentoring and advice. ADFA should offer cadets a mentor external to ADFA, who may be drawn from a non-military background. Female cadets should be given the option to be placed with female mentors. A number of women’s mentoring programs currently operate through Australian universities, including the University of New South Wales (UNSW). These programs may provide a useful template.

The Review heard that there is regular alcohol use among ADFA cadets. Among some groups, there is heavy alcohol use characterised by binge drinking. Early training is a formative period for ADFA cadets. It is a time when drinking behaviours can become established. Information was provided to the Review that such use is typical of a general drinking culture among young people in Australia. However, the Review also heard that since ADFA cadets, are trained to be future leaders, they should adhere to a higher standard of acceptable behaviour than the wider Australian population.

Heavy alcohol use can increase risks to individual and others’ wellbeing and safety. It can also have a serious impact on women’s safety. The cost of alcoholic drinks in the cadets’ mess is much lower than in public establishments. To minimise the risks arising from the over-consumption of alcohol, ADFA should review its pricing regimes in the mess. In addition, ADFA should ensure ongoing regular alcohol testing is undertaken, as provided by Defence Instruction (General) Personnel 15-4 Alcohol Testing in the Australian Defence Force.

e) Residential setting and supervision
Cadets are generally housed on the ADFA campus. Complex issues arise because the campus is a place of residence and a place of study and work for young people experiencing a new level of independence. There are inadequate levels of oversight and supervision to minimise risks. Greater engagement of staff ‘after hours’, and the creation of appropriate staff accommodation to support this aim, will greatly enhance ADFA’s culture and its effectiveness to promote the development of the cadets within its care.

As a priority, ADFA should instruct an occupational health and safety specialist to conduct a risk assessment of the residential accommodation, including bathrooms, to identify the existence and level of risk to cadets arising from mixed gender living arrangements.

To address the issue of isolation and to increase supervision in the residential setting the Commandant should adopt a system based on a model of Residential Advisors for each first year Division (one male and one female) who will live in the residential block to provide after hours supervision. While they may be recent ADFA graduates engaged in postgraduate study, these Residential Advisors should be outside the cadet structure, and should have appropriate skills and attributes in leadership, and the ability to provide after hours supervision and pastoral care for cadets. They should have a direct line of report to the Commandant in the case of serious pastoral or disciplinary incidents.

In addition, the ADF should explore the creation of residential accommodation on the ADFA site suitable for couples or families, for Divisional staff in association with their training and supervisory roles. Further, the culture at ADFA would benefit from the greater engagement of military, academic and pastoral staff ‘after hours’ and in the residential setting, and the ADF should explore the creation of appropriate spaces to enhance engagement in this setting from all three groups.

f) Gender relations
Gender relations are not well understood among cadets and the messages cadets receive about unacceptable behaviour can be inconsistent. Similarly, the impact of sexualised activities and sexual behaviour is not well understood or grounded in an appropriate ethical framework for the cadet body.

Education on sexual ethics and respectful and healthy relationships should be provided to all cadets, including on issues such as:
• the meaning, inappropriateness and impact of sexist language and sexual harassment
• the meaning of consent
• the appropriate use of technology
• stalking, controlling and threatening behaviours.
g) Complaints process
Training on making complaints of unacceptable behaviour – including sexual harassment, abuse and sex discrimination – should be reviewed to ensure the training is targeted and appropriate to each year group and to staff. It should also reflect an individual’s different responsibilities in relation to incident reporting, response and management.

Reporting a complaint can be difficult for cadets who fear victimisation, lack of confidentiality or that it will undermine their opportunities for career progression. The Review saw merit in the Army’s Fair Go Hotline, which allows Army personnel to raise previously unreported incidents of unacceptable behaviour, including bullying, harassment, victimisation, verbal abuse or assault. Callers can remain anonymous and are not required to disclose that they have used the Hotline. Issues reported to the Fair Go Hotline are investigated and necessary actions are taken.

To encourage reporting of complaints by cadets and to provide staff with a useful tool to find the best referral mechanism for a cadet who has come to them with a complaint, ADFA should establish and promote a dedicated ADFA-specific, seven-day per week, toll-free hotline for all cadets, staff and families. The expert operators will provide advice and referral about the most appropriate mechanism or service (ADFA, ADF or external) to deal with the complaint.

ADFA’s incidents and complaints data is patchy and incomplete. ADFA should develop and maintain, through the ADF information system, a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date online database, which includes all relevant information about complaints and incidents. The Commandant of ADFA and the Commander of the Australian Defence College should be given monthly reports on incidents and trend data. The database should also undergo annual quality assurance testing to ensure that the standards in the relevant Defence Instructions are being met.

h) Sexual harassment and abuse
Widespread, low-level sexual harassment exists at ADFA. Women disproportionately experience gender and sex-related harassment, as well as general harassment and discrimination. Qualitative and quantitative information also shows there have been isolated incidents of serious sexual misconduct in recent years, including sexual assault. These results were of concern to the Review.

ADFA should take a leadership role by developing and administering an annual survey to measure the level of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The results from this survey should inform an organisational response. The Review acknowledges that ADFA is not alone in facing these challenges. Other tertiary institutions and residential colleges have similar concerns. Therefore, ADFA should develop its unacceptable behaviour survey in collaboration with the residential colleges and halls of the Group of Eight universities’ colleges and halls, in order to provide meaningful comparisons. It would also demonstrate ADFA’s commitment to lead in this area. Consideration should also be given to including Single Service Training establishments in the development of this survey.

i) Women’s health and wellbeing
The different health needs and physical capacities of women are not well understood. Proportionally, female cadets experience a higher level of injury than male cadets. ADFA should examine women’s injury rates and develop strategies to improve health and wellbeing management. Injured cadets who are disproportionately women are often stigmatised on account of their medical status. ADFA should develop a strategy to address this.

In addition, there is insufficient support for a range of health and wellbeing issues, including sexual and personal abuse and violence at ADFA. ADFA should provide information on key internal and external support services to cadets to be able to respond to cadets’ health and wellbeing needs in a holistic fashion.

03 November 2011


'The Scope and Limits of Legal Intervention in Controversies Involving Biomedicine: A Legal History of Vaccination and English Law (1813–1853)' by Ubaka Ogbogu offers a concise account of the role of law and politics in the adoption of smallpox vaccination in Britain in the early Victorian period, when legislation was passed to enforce compulsory infantile vaccination.

Ogbogu states that -
The primary thesis of the study is that law, and the processes through which it is created and maintained, provide a distinct “envelope of social order” (Jasanoff 2008, 764) within which competing and duelling interests and opinions about scientific innovation find origin, expression, and debate. Consequently, the manner in which law responds to science and its impact on society is neither static nor self-evident, but subject to mutable circumstances that are historically, politically, and socially situated. The paper is divided into two main parts. The first provides a brief history of vaccination and the second focuses on events surrounding the introduction of compulsory vaccination laws in England and Wales.
He concludes that -
The history of vaccination policy and practice in England in the first half of the 19th century reveals that law played a central role in the development of the notions of public health and state medicine. Faced with the terrifying smallpox epidemic, the state turned to law to fashion responses that were both authoritative and scientifically informed. However, the application of law to the problem of infectious disease was neither calculated nor coherent. Legal intervention was made possible through the efforts of a few individuals and/or groups with parochial agendas rather than through concerted state action, and the form of intervention ranged from adoptive to coercive policies. More strikingly, legal intervention was initiated and implemented without deep consideration of its social significance or consequences, or of other policy options for combating smallpox, such as education. This regulatory approach set the stage for social opposition to vaccination measures and state medicine, and operationalized the inordinate and often controversial focus on law as a tool of public health governance that is still evident to this day.

Furthermore, support for the application of law to the smallpox dilemma was largely based on statistical evidence of the effectiveness of vaccination. There was hardly any reliance on scientific facts about vaccine safety and efficacy in the legislative debates. Pro-vaccination MPs simply substituted generalized statistical comparisons of pre- and post-vaccination mortality rates for core scientific evidence about vaccine safety and efficacy. This approach is hardly surprising given the context of the times; vaccination as popularized by Jenner was an empirical remedy, and proof of its efficacy was established by successful case studies rather than through rigorous scientific examination of the modality of vaccination.

Finally, law did not play an “outsider” role in relation to the social controversies provoked by the ban on inoculation or by the adoption of vaccination. As cases such as Pilcher and Allen make clear, many of the disputes associated with vaccination in 19th century England were provoked by legal intervention. Rather, the machinery of law provided a distinct social setting within which various competing interests found expression and in some cases, recognition. Indeed, the anti-vaccination movement was as much a response to the authority of law as it was to the “scientific” and social implications of vaccination.


'Secrecy, Betrayal and Crime' by Dina Siegel in (2011) 7(3) Utrecht Law Review  107-119 argues that -
In the past several years more and more hidden transgressions and crimes have been revealed in the media. Secrets that were kept for generations are no longer secret. Secret societies such as the Freemasons hold ‘open days’ and Cabbalists attract a wide audience to their courses and workshops, something unthinkable only twenty years ago. Whistleblowers reveal clandestine agreements between managers and directors of large companies; criminals (pentiti) make deals with criminal justice officials and provide information about organized crime; cyclists and athletes make tearful confessions about drug use in front of an army of TV journalists.

It looks as if Pandora’s box has been opened and all kinds of sins have emerged. However, going through the historical archives, we see that from time to time sensational and sometimes heartbreaking testimonies by victims of sexual abuse, or confessions by sportsmen, managers and drug traffickers have appeared in the headlines before. These confessions shocked the public, raised many questions and then disappeared again – until the mid 1990s/beginning of the 2000s, when a new wave of revelations in various sectors of society began to dominate the media and the public debate.

The relevant question for social science research is what exactly happened to make all these persons speak up? Why them and why now? How do society’s institutions react to these revela- tions? More in general, what is happening in our late modern society, where secrets seem to be a thing of the past? Various theories have been proposed to answer these questions. One possible explanation for this wave of revelations can be found in increasing governmental control and successful compliance by various public and private institutions. This explanation has been challenged by criminologists who argue that stricter control can only lead to even more secrecy and more sophisticated communication between the persons involved.

Another possible explanation is that although secrecy used to be functional in times of trouble, dictatorships and wars, as a symbol of political or religious protest to gain the under- ground support of a significant part of the population, today the word ‘secret’ has become synonymous with ‘illegal’ or ‘criminal’. Rather than being considered an offender, people prefer to be viewed as ‘victims of the system’, of late modernity with its impersonal, unstable relation- ships, mobility and risks. In such a society there is no place for secrets. This explanation has also been criticized, for example by authors like Mike Presdee, who have argued that the routine and boredom of late modern life can be a reason for individuals to lead a ‘second life’, where transgressions can be an answer to the emptiness of people’s existence. Presdee shows that longing for different forms of pleasure is a consequence of the increasing rationalization of public life, ‘that part of life that is inaccessible and untouchable to the “official world” of the scientific rationality of modernity and its politics, parties and politicians’. ‘Moral entrepreneurs’ describe this desire for pleasure as uncivilized or even criminal.

While earlier in history the functionality of secrecy was generally recognized and the violation of a secret was seen as betrayal, today secrecy is considered as an obstacle to risk avoidance, and the disclosure of secrets is viewed in our times as an expression of good citizen- ship. It is encouraged and in some countries even rewarded by the authorities.

In this paper, I will ask why attitudes about secrecy have changed, why in the last decades so many secrets have been revealed, either by individuals who are complicit (pentiti, whistle- blowers or cyclists) or by victims (of child abuse by the Catholic clergy) and outsiders (WikiLeaks activists). Who are the people behind the secrets? And how can we carry out research in closed and isolated groups who consider such information leaks a form of betrayal? What is the specific social context in which these revelations take place, and why is this happening now? I do not pretend to be able to answer all these questions. Much more (and more detailed) criminological research is needed for this. My purpose here is to place them on the agenda of future criminological research, especially by the Utrecht School of Cultural Criminology.
Siegel comments that -
The basic idea of the founders of the WikiLeaks website is that there should be no more secrets: no secret acts, no secret agreements, no secret promises. Everything should be open and transparent. Public and private organizations, as well as individuals, are no longer supposed to have anything to hide.

But who is behind WikiLeaks, who decides that absolute transparency is the highest value of late modernity? The site claims to have been founded by a group of concerned journalists, political dissidents and hackers, whose aim is to make confidential government documents available to the wider public. However, the idea that WikiLeaks is just a group of informers is not quite correct. In the process of revealing information a selection has to be made, as well as a decision about what is sufficiently important to put out and what is not. In this way, a new group of powerful individuals emerges, who are not only in a position to manage our information systems and to determine the political and social agenda, but also to play the role of censor, reminiscent of Big Brother.

According to the prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, WikiLeaks is achieving the opposite of what it is supposed to achieve. ‘Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself’.40 In a sense, WikiLeaks is taking upon itself the role of a censor, in a totalitarian sense, because people will become afraid of writing what they really think and believe. ‘The ability to be secret is essential to the ability to be honest’. ‘WikiLeaks is setting itself up as a moral authority over the whole world’, and ‘even if some evils are exposed by it, or some necessary truths aired, the end does not justify the means’.

Another criticism of WikiLeaks’ activities is that their presupposition that the public wants to know everything is taken for granted. But not everyone wants to know everything, especially when it comes to facts that could destroy our trust. Comparable to the previously discussed ‘conspiracy of silence’ we do not want people to ruin our ideals, our fairy tales, or our heroes. The question as to whether the world will improve with vast amounts of information on every- thing and everybody remains problematic. It appears that the Internet has created new ways for betrayal, challenging us to reconsider our concepts of ‘trust’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘responsibility’. With the revelations by WikiLeaks a situation is created where people start to trust the Internet almost absolutely.

02 November 2011


'What is the evidence of the impact of microfinance on the well-being of poor people?' (EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London 2011) by Duvendack, Palmer-Jones, Copestake, Hooper, Loke & Rao [PDF] comments that -
Despite the apparent success and popularity of microfinance, no clear evidence yet exists that microfinance programmes have positive impacts (Armendáriz de Aghion and Morduch 2005, 2010; and many others). There have been four major reviews examining impacts of microfinance (Sebstad and Chen, 1996; Gaile and Foster 1996, Goldberg 2005, Odell 2010, see also Orso 2011). These reviews concluded that, while anecdotes and other inspiring stories (such as Todd 1996) purported to show that microfinance can make a real difference in the lives of those served, rigorous quantitative evidence on the nature, magnitude and balance of microfinance impact is still scarce and inconclusive (Armendáriz de Aghion and Morduch 2005, 2010). Overall, it is widely acknowledged that no well-known study robustly shows any strong impacts of microfinance (Armendáriz de Aghion and Morduch 2005, p199-230).

Because of the growth of the microfinance industry and the attention the sector has received from policy makers, donors and private investors in recent years, existing microfinance impact evaluations need to be re-investigated; the robustness of claims that microfinance successfully alleviates poverty and empowers women must be scrutinised more carefully. Hence, this review re- visits the evidence of microfinance evaluations focusing on the technical challenges of conducting rigorous microfinance impact evaluations.
They go on to comment that -
There are only two Randomised Control Trials [RCTs] of relevance to our objectives; neither has appeared in peer review form. In our judgement, one has low-moderate and the other high risk of bias; neither finds convincing impacts on well-being. We found nine pipeline studies reported in ten papers, all based on non-random selection of location and clients; most have only ex-post cross-sectional data, some with retrospective panel data, allowing only low validity impact estimates of change in outcome variables.

We find no robust evidence of positive impacts on women’s status, or girl’s enrolments - this may be partly due to these topics not being addressed in valid studies (RCTs and pipelines). Well-known studies which claim to have found positive impacts on females are based on weak research designs and problematic IV analyses which may not have survived replication or re-analysis using other methods, i.e. PSM.

Given their importance in validating perceptions of the beneficence of microfinance interventions, we devote considerable effort to the assessment of with/without studies which have low inherent internal validity notwithstanding analysis with sophisticated methods. In particular, we discuss the two historically most significant studies (Pitt and Khandker 1998 and USAID funded studies in India, Zimbabwe and Peru – see sections 3.4.1 and 3.4.2, which, partly as a result of their prominence, have been replicated. The replications fail to confirm the original beneficent findings, and conclude that there is no statistically convincing evidence in these studies to either support or contradict the main claims of beneficence of microfinance. This is partly because of their weak research design. ...

[O]ur report shows that almost all impact evaluations of microfinance suffer from weak methodologies and inadequate data (as already argued by Adams and von Pischke 1992), thus the reliability of impact estimates are adversely affected. This can lead to misconceptions about the actual effects of a microfinance programme, thereby diverting attention from the search for perhaps more pro-poor interventions. Therefore, it is of interest to the development community to engage with evaluation techniques and to understand their limitations, so that more reliable evidence of impact can be provided in order to lead to better outcomes for the poor.
More pungently, the conclusion states that -
If indeed there is no good evidence to support the claim that microfinance has a beneficial effect on the well-being of poor people or empowers women, then, over the last decade or so, it might have been more beneficial to explore alternative interventions that could have better benefitted poor people and/or empowered women. Microfinance activities and finance have absorbed a significant proportion of development resources, both in terms of finances and people. Microfinance activities are highly attractive, not only to the development industry but also to mainsteam financial and business interests with little interest in poverty reduction or empowerment of women, as pointed out above. There are many other candidate sectors for development activity which may have been relatively disadvantaged by ill-founded enthusiasm for microfinance. Even within the microfinance sector, the putative success of basic models of lending such as the Grameen Bank and related models, may well have diverted attention from opportunities for alternatives; for example, recent studies (Collins et al. 2009) have pointed out that poor people do not just need credit but access to other financial products such as savings, and insurance. Also, the financial products offered by MFIs must become more flexible and adjust to rapidly changing circumstances faced by poor people. Many MFIs have already moved in that direction, providing more diverse and flexible products.

However, it remains unclear under what circumstances, and for whom, microfinance has been and could be of real, rather than imagined, benefit to poor people. Unsurprisingly we focus our policy recommendations on the need for more and better research. Thus, to have obtained a clearer picture on the impacts of microfinance, on whom, where, and when (e.g. under what circumstances), and the mechanisms which account for these effects, more and better quality quantitative evidence was required at an earlier stage in the diffusion of this intervention. While there is currently enthusiasm for RCTs as the gold standard for assessing interventions, there are many who doubt the universal appropriateness of these designs. Indeed there may be something to be said for the idea that this current enthusiasm is built on similar foundations of sand to those on which we suggest the microfinance phenomenon has been based.


'Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’' by danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey in 16(11) First Monday (2011) argues -
Facebook, like many communication services and social media sites, uses its Terms of Service (ToS) to forbid children under the age of 13 from creating an account. Such prohibitions are not uncommon in response to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which seeks to empower parents by requiring commercial Web site operators to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children under 13. Given economic costs, social concerns, and technical issues, most general–purpose sites opt to restrict underage access through their ToS. Yet in spite of such restrictions, research suggests that millions of underage users circumvent this rule and sign up for accounts on Facebook. Given strong evidence of parental concern about children’s online activity, this raises questions of whether or not parents understand ToS restrictions for children, how they view children’s practices of circumventing age restrictions, and how they feel about children’s access being regulated. In this paper, we provide survey data that show that many parents know that their underage children are on Facebook in violation of the site’s restrictions and that they are often complicit in helping their children join the site. Our data suggest that, by creating a context in which companies choose to restrict access to children, COPPA inadvertently undermines parents’ ability to make choices and protect their children’s data. Our data have significant implications for policy–makers, particularly in light of ongoing discussions surrounding COPPA and other age–based privacy laws
The authors comment that -
COPPA’s approach to privacy depends on two main premises: (1) that parents will be able to give sites informed verifiable consent regarding data collection practices; and, (2) that age–based privacy protections are both appropriate and achievable. Our data suggest that this second premise — relying on age–based models — is producing unintended consequences that undermine COPPA’s goals. In response, we propose that policy–makers shift away from privacy regulation models that are based on age or other demographic categories and, instead, develop universal privacy protections for online users. This would avoid creating an environment where service providers like Facebook have incentives to “divide and conquer” populations in terms of privacy and data collection policies. This would not only eliminate the problems with age–based prohibitions and circumventions, but also provide increased privacy protection to both teens and adults. As modern online data collection and advertising practices become more complex, it is not just children who need protections (Hoofnagle, et al., 2010; Hoofnagle and King, 2008; Montgomery and Chester, 2009).

Furthermore, given many parents’ openness to recommendations, it might be useful to develop mechanisms to provide parents with recommendations about the appropriateness of various sites for children of different ages and the various risks that users may face. Our findings show that parents are indeed concerned about privacy and online safety issues, but they also show that they may not understand the risks that children face or how their data are used. Greater transparency and increased information flow can help parents make appropriate decisions.
Boyd et al conclude -
Our findings call the efficacy of COPPA into serious question. The data also point to unintended consequences of the COPPA model of regulation of Web–based services. The online industry’s response to COPPA’s under–13 rule and verifiable parental consent model is largely proving incompatible, and at times, antithetical to many parents’ ideas of how to help their children navigate the online world. Instead of providing more tools to help parents and their children make informed choices, industry responses to COPPA have neglected parental preferences and have altogether restricted what is available for children to access. As a result, many parents now knowingly allow or assist their children in circumventing age restrictions on general–purpose sites through lying. By creating this environment, COPPA inadvertently hampers the very population it seeks to assist and forces parents and children to forgo COPPA’s protection and take greater risks in order to get access to the educational and communication sites they want to be part of their online experiences.

Legislative or regulatory solutions that seek to “update” COPPA must confront this paradox and these fundamental flaws in its design. As long as the emphasis of the regulatory approach remains on age–based cutoffs and onerous consent mechanisms, it is likely that general–purpose Web sites will continue to block access to anyone under the age cutoff. In response, parents who wish for their children to participate on such sites will continue to assist their children in deceptively circumventing such restrictions. This is neither a solution to privacy and online safety concerns nor a way of empowering parents.

Increased enforcement efforts, either through governmental actions or Terms of Service crackdowns, will only further upset parents and potentially increase legal risks resulting from the acts of circumvention they undertake. Legislative efforts to increase minimum age requirements or strengthen age verification will complicate and increase the cost to companies of compliance, further encouraging them to focus on denying access rather than providing privacy protection or cooperating with parents. Again, this neither empowers parents nor helps youth. Conversely, such efforts would serve to position the government as “in loco parentis,” thereby undermining parental rights and freedoms. Not only would an “in loco parentis” framework run counter to most parents’ desires, but it would also undermine the very goals of COPPA: providing parents with additional information and options.

Parents are concerned about children’s safety and privacy, and governmental agencies have every reason to want to step in and help, but restricting access — or creating regulatory solutions that encourage companies to restrict access — is counterproductive. New solutions must be devised that help limit when, where, and how data are used, but the key to helping children and their parents enjoy the benefits of those solutions is to abandon age–based mechanisms that inadvertently result in limiting children’s options for online access.

01 November 2011


There's not a lot of comfort in the 76 page report by the Victorian Ombudsman on its Investigation into how universities deal with international students [PDF].

The Ombusman makes 17 recommendationa -
R 1 - Review their minimum IELTS scores for admission to courses based on evidence about the academic needs and performance of students by mid-2012, and provide the findings to my office.

R 2 - Amend their admission procedures to require admissions officers to verify IELTS test results submitted by prospective students and report evidence of student anomalies to testing organisations.

R 3 - Require all international students, including students who have completed pathway courses, to submit results of an independent language test, taken not more than twelve months previously, prior to enrolment in higher education programs.

R 4 - Monitor and report annually to their academic governing bodies from 2012 about the academic progress of international students who enter university through different English language pathways.

R 5 - Conduct annual reviews of their admission standards.

R 6 - Review English language services for students by mid-2012 to identify the extent to which students use existing services, including identifying any barriers to student participation and models for providing effective in-course language support to all students.

R 7 - Review the extent to which academic staff, including sessional staff, use professional development resources designed to help them teach and assess diverse groups of students, and identify any barriers to staff participation and models for providing practical support to staff.

R 8 - Appoint external examiners to report on their academic standards and assessment methods.

R 9 - Commission an independent risk assessment of the extent of cheating and bribery amongst staff and students and the effectiveness of their existing policies and procedures by mid-2012 and provide the findings to my office.

R 10 - Remind staff about their obligations to report plagiarism, cheating and other academic misconduct under university policies and procedures.

R 11 - Advise all staff about the provisions of the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001 and provide regular training in this regard.

R 12 - Review written complaint and appeal policies and procedures against regulatory requirements and the Ombudsman’s guide to complaint handling for Victorian public sector agencies.

R 13 - Review the accessibility of their complaint and appeal systems, including simplifying their systems and their communication with students by mid-2012, and provide the findings to my office.

R 14 - Improve information and training for staff about complaint handling, including through induction programs and the appointment of complaint officers, either centrally or in schools, to advise and assist staff.

R 15 - Record and monitor all complaints and appeals, including those managed within schools and administrative areas, and report annually to their governing bodies.

R 16 - Review policies and procedures for dealing with unsatisfactory academic progress, including:
• barriers to student engagement
• ways to identify ‘at risk’ students earlier
• communication with students during university vacations
• ways to manage students who have re-enrolled while appeals are underway.
R 17 - Audit compliance with regulatory and quality standards regularly at a school and administrative division level. These audits should examine the implementation of standards in practice through consultation with academic staff and students.
Those recommendations reflect the Ombudsman's comments that -
International education activity as a whole generated $5.9 billion for the Victorian economy in 2009-10.

Victoria’s reputation for providing quality higher education has been a key selling point for universities. There has been considerable effort on the part of governments to protect and promote this reputation, particularly following the recent downturn in the international student market.

Complaints from students at universities to my office, however, have more than tripled in the last four years, from 176 in 2007-08 to 534 in 2010-11. Many of these complainants identify themselves as international students and most contact my office because their university has, or is proposing to, exclude them because of poor academic performance. Complaints from students at universities to my office have more than tripled in the last four years.

I have observed some concerning patterns with these complaints:
• A number of international students struggle to communicate in English. This is despite the fact that universities are meant to ensure they have appropriate English language proficiency before admission.
• Some universities have been the source of a disproportionately high number of complaints.
At the same time, I have received disclosures under the Whistleblowers Protection Act alleging improper conduct at some universities, such as bribery or preferential treatment of students. ...

My investigation initially focused on the universities’ handling of student complaints, but as it progressed I also identified issues with:
• English language admission standards and support services
• academic standards and conduct
• regulatory arrangements.
The Ombudsman went on to comment that -
Several witnesses claimed that universities are reluctant to face problems with their admission policies for fear of reducing international student numbers and revenue. My investigation obtained internal documents from three universities showing business considerations have factored in discussions about admission policies.

My investigation obtained internal documents from three universities showing business considerations have factored in discussions about admission policies.

The universities rejected any suggestion that admission standards have been compromised by revenue. They expressed concern about the methodology for my investigation, particularly the number of witnesses interviewed. Swinburne noted that other factors, in addition to English language skills, affect international students’ academic and career prospects. RMIT and the University of Ballarat referred to the published data showing international students have pass rates comparable to local students and dismissed contrary evidence from witnesses as ‘anecdotal’.

However, my investigation identified that only one of the four universities – Swinburne – has been regularly collecting and analysing data about the academic performance of students admitted through different English language pathways to verify its own policies. This is despite a 2002 report from Victoria’s Auditor-General recommending all universities track the relationship between admission pathways and academic outcomes to support admission decisions.

I consider that the universities need to shift their focus from recruiting students and boosting their revenue to ensuring their international students have the necessary skills to study successfully. ...

The growth of international education at Victorian universities has been rapid and far-reaching. The pace of change is likely to continue with the introduction of demand-driven funding for local students and plans to increase participation in higher education.

Recent disclosures to my office under the Whistleblowers Protection Act, along with media debate about ‘soft marking’ of students, raise questions about how universities are maintaining standards in the face of these changes.

The four universities all have quality assurance systems and processes and aim to promote proper conduct through staff codes of conduct and strategies to discourage and detect plagiarism.

I consider that the universities need to strengthen their systems. The university staff interviewed during my investigation were committed to giving international students a meaningful education, and to preserving quality and standards in the face of significant changes to their working environment. However, some staff reported experiences that are cause for concern. These include:
• A nursing lecturer at one university said her head of school had given extra marks to students because he thought the failure rate for her subject was too high and he wanted ‘to get the traffic lights green’.
• Academics at three universities said the way they assess students has changed, with less emphasis on written examinations and more emphasis on other types of assessment such as group work.
• Academics at three universities said plagiarism is a problem for students. One RMIT academic described it as ‘running rampant’.
• Six of 15 academic staff interviewed from the four universities reported they had been offered a bribe by a student in the past, or knew of colleagues who had been offered a bribe.
The report unsurprisingly does not grapple with the 'elephant in the classroom', ie the question about funding tertiary education and the role of the 'enterprise university'.

Directions in copyright reform

Reading the Copyright Council Expert Group (CCEG) report on directions in copyright reform in Australia [PDF] and the European Commission report on Trends and challenges in demand-side innovation policies in Europe [PDF].

The 12 page CCEG report has been produced by an academic group convened by the Australian Copyright Council to "provide expert advice on possible reform of areas of tension in Australian copyright law". The group's members are: David Brennan (University of Melbourne), Melissa de Zwart (University of Adelaide), Michael Fraser (Communications Law Centre, University of Technology Sydney), David Lindsay (Monash University) and Sam Ricketson (University of Melbourne). The report makes broad recommendations for reform regarding -
• Non-commercial transformative use of copyright works
• Internet intermediary liability
• Orphan works
• Registration of copyright works
:The 42 page EC report aims to
• identify the trends in the deployment of demand-side innovation policy at national level in the EU Member States during the period mid-2009 to mid-2011;
• give an overview on recently introduced demand-side innovation policy measures and to ascertain if there are any observable patterns;
• provide insights into how demand-side measures are being implemented;
• analyse governance practices for coordinating between demand-side and supply-side measures.