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Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman 5 mins read


23 April 2024


Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson interview with Casey Briggs.

ABC TV News Channel


Subjects: Small business problems with digital platforms; being locked out of social media accounts; fake reviews


Casey Briggs

Tech giant Meta is under pressure after a dramatic rise in people having their social media accounts hacked in the United States. The owner of Facebook and Instagram has been heavily criticised for failing to do enough to help hacked customers. It’s a problem also being experienced here, particularly by small businesses which rely on the platform to survive. Bruce Billson is the Small Business Ombudsman and he’s getting a lot of complaints about this exact issue. And he joins me now from Canberra. Thanks so much for joining us. This is a fast-growing problem you’re seeing?

Bruce Billson

This is the fastest growing area of dispute my agency's handling, Casey. We’ve seen more than doubling of of these kinds of concerns over the last couple of years, and trending up. What we’ve know for a while, but what more people are appreciating, is for many small and family businesses their digital presence is their channel to the marketplace.

So, if they're locked out of that channel, that's livelihoods under pressure. There's a risk of hacking. We've seen accounts raided to fund ad spends on these platforms and frankly the platforms need to do better.

Casey Briggs

Yeah, it's worth noting it hurts the business in terms of their reputation with their customers and the people they have relationships with. But it's also financially costing them money because sometimes these scammers are using the victim's credit card to buy ads.

Bruce Billson

That's right. We see examples where not only are the businesses losing their opportunity to secure a livelihood. If they've got credit cards attached to their account, through which ads spends are paid for, that can be hacked into as well. And we've seen examples where that spend has been thousands and thousands of dollars, often promoting crypto currency or even something else that might look like a legitimate offer that turns out to be a front-end Trojan to extract information and financial access information of customers that might otherwise be there for a legitimate reason.

Casey Briggs

From the complaints you've been receiving, do you get the impression that companies like Meta are doing enough to support customers?

Bruce Billson

They're not doing enough on a number of fronts. Imagine the ultimate runaround, Casey. You and I have our marketplace or our online channel to our customers hacked, we're denied access to our account, but to flag any requests for help we actually need to get into the very account we're being denied access to. You can imagine how frustrating that is.

Some of the self-help tools are not that helpful, frankly. And if you want to talk to a real person, my goodness, it's easier to win lotto in some cases. So in in these examples, we treat them as a business-to-business dispute.

We say to these digital platforms, if you set out appropriate support steps, you've got reasonable internal dispute resolution mechanisms, we're prepared to help out, but we want to be able to speak to a real person to get an early resolution and get these small and family businesses reliant on these platforms, back to business as quickly as we can.

Casey Briggs

Everything we hear about the complaint process for businesses to try and resolve these things sounds like a real bureaucratic nightmare. But do you get the impression Meta seems to care much about this issue?

Bruce Billson

Well, we'd like to think they do. We have reasonable conversations about what they can do to help. But in the end of the day, Casey, the back swing might be nice. It's all about the follow through. Some reassuring words that they've improved their processes - the test is what actually happens.

And by the time people get to us, they are frustrated beyond belief and have usually invested considerable amounts of time trying to sort out their issue themselves. When we get involved, if we've got all the relevant information and it's relatively straightforward, we can pass that through to the digital platforms and often get a result within days, in some cases weeks. If it's a little more complicated and it's a cascading problem where access to the account is just the start of it, and there are matters such as payment for ad spends or where other customers on your platform have been accessed via your presence, that can be far more complicated. If it takes one or two efforts to go back to the platform, those weeks quickly can become months, and that's months that a small and family business doesn't have access to their customers and it's really impacting on their livelihoods.

Casey Briggs

Bruce, I feel like that's a common story across many industries. It's very hard to get a real solution to an issue or a complaint until you go to the Ombudsman and then all of a sudden a solution can be found. And in this case, Meta can resolve the issue. But if this is the fastest growing area of complaints for you, is this a drain on your resources?

Bruce Billson

It is Casey, but we’re there to help businesses resolve these disputes and get back to business as fast as they can. In the absence of our assistance, in some cases resolutions are just way out of reach. So, it's an important contribution to energising enterprise in our economy. These platforms are really central to so many business models, particularly for young people who don't want to rent a bricks and mortar premises. They want access to the eyeballs that are aggregated across these platforms. But when things go wrong, it's just too hard to rectify.

And that's where we're calling on the platforms to do better. They can do better. And then if they can't resolve it internally, set up really fast-track early resolution mechanisms involving agencies such as my own.

Casey Briggs

The ACCC has called for the government to introduce an Ombudsman for digital platforms, separate to your own office, Bruce. Would you like to see something like that?

Bruce Billson

That's what we've been calling for as well. Whether our agency is tasked with that role or someone else is. This is a growing area of commerce. It's not just access to the accounts, Casey. You can actually pay somebody to go and trash talk your opposing businesses if you want to open up a new business in a particular neighbourhood. You can have an absolutely feral appraisals on your website, rating systems that might be compromised by people making false and malicious allegations. These are all part of what can happen and can go wrong in the digital space. And that's why the platforms need to do better and we need better safeguard mechanisms for those small and family businesses relying on these platforms to energise our economy and to get a livelihood for themselves.

Casey Briggs

Small Business Ombudsman Bruce Billson, thanks so much.


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