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Andrew Forrest launches criminal action against Facebook over scam ads that used his image

Mining billionaire says world-first prosecution aims to prevent Australians being scammed through clickbait advertising on social media

By Cait Kelly The Guardian

The Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest has launched criminal proceedings against Facebook alleging the tech giant breached federal anti-money laundering laws by not cracking down sufficiently on scam ads that used his image.

The action in the Western Australia magistrates court is the first time Facebook has faced criminal charges anywhere in the world, Forrest said on Thursday.

The charges allege Facebook was criminally reckless by not taking sufficient steps to stop criminals from using its social media platform to send scam advertisements that aimed to defraud Australian users.

It is alleged the scam advertisements – which used Forrest’s image and purported to promote cryptocurrency investment schemes – have appeared on Facebook since March 2019.

Forrest, the chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, also claims Facebook failed to create controls or a corporate culture that would prevent its systems from being used to commit alleged crimes.

It is unusual for a private citizen to bring criminal charges against a corporation. Forrest said he had sought and received approval from Australia’s attorney general, Michaelia Cash, to launch the action under the commonwealth criminal code.

The attorney general has been contacted for comment.

Forrest in September 2021 launched civil proceedings against Facebook in California in the US.

The Australian legal action comes after Forrest asked Facebook to prevent his image from being used to scam Australian users – including an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg in November 2019.

“I’m doing this because I’m concerned about innocent Australians being scammed through clickbait advertising on social media,” Forest said on Thursday.

“I’m committed to ensuring that social media operators don’t allow their sites to be used by criminal syndicates.

“This action is being taken on behalf of those everyday Australians – mums and dads, grans and grandads – who work all their lives to gather their savings and to ensure those savings aren’t swindled away by scammers. I’m acting here for Australians but this is happening all over the world.”

Facebook said it couldn’t comment on Forrest’s case specifically because it was “a potentially active legal matter”.

But the company said generally “we don’t want ads seeking to scam people out of money or mislead people on Facebook – they violate our policies and are not good for our community”.

A spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “We take a multifaceted approach to stop these ads, we work not just to detect and reject the ads themselves but also block advertisers from our services and, in some cases, take court action to enforce our policies. We’re committed to keeping these people off our platform.”

One difficulty for social media companies and publishers is that scammers often use technology to show different content to users and internal ad reviewers – a practice called “cloaking”.

But Forrest said he wanted social media companies to use their resources and revenue to protect vulnerable people. “Social media is part of our lives, but it’s in the public interest for more to be done to ensure fraud on social media platforms is eliminated or significantly reduced,” the mining magnate said on Thursday.

An initial court hearing in WA is scheduled for 28 March, with a committal hearing expected later in 2022.

Additional reporting by Narelle Towie

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