Rob Shilkin

These days, Rob Shilkin is head of Google’s corporate communications team globally, but back when he was a law and economics student at UWA, Silicon Valley was probably the last place on his mind.

The former Hale School student was working as a competition lawyer at ClaytonUtz in Sydney when he decided to take a punt and respond to a job ad for Google’s head of communications in Australia; the gamble paid off and the tech giant has now been his career home for more than a decade.

“There are never-ending challenges for and interest in our company, it seems,”says Rob. “My team deals with any number of corporate, business and policy issues that arise.”

He’s been excellently prepared to deal with those issues by his law degree, he explains.“UWA Law equips its graduates incredibly well for all sorts of careers and professions –it instils a disciplined, logical way of thinking and helps you craft and dissect arguments. I’ve loved seeing my peers succeed in everything from investment banking to business management to politics to academia.

Getting involved in the Blackstone Society and UWA Guild affords incredible opportunities – there’s nothing like standing on your feet in moot court or touting for votes on stage in front of a packed Octagon Theatre to hone your messaging skills.

We asked Rob about how companies like Google will cope in the face of new laws compelling them to decrypt messages to fight terrorism and hate speech.

“The internet is truly the great leveller, enabling anyone to publish and access information to and from anywhere. This has created incredible value for society. But increasingly, there are those who seek to abuse those freedoms, from terrorist organisations to hate groups, trolls and cyber-criminals. All tech companies are grappling with where to draw the line in removing offensive content from their services – Spotify removing racist music from its streaming service, Twitter banning extremist-linked accounts, Facebook removing fake news articles.

“The debates that play out are not new in society – we have long had censorship debates over controversial books and films, and whether to grant visas to speakers like (Holocaust denier) David Irving. But with information spreading instantaneously to billions online from thousands of sources, the debate has taken on a new urgency and scale.

“Our approach is to block any content that violates a country’s laws, such as terrorist content, as well as copyright-infringing material, child sexual-abuse imagery, spam and personally identifiable information like credit card numbers. Beyond that, the position we take at Google reflects the different types of platforms we manage. A search engine, like the card catalogue for a library, is a reflection of all the content that’s out there on the web, so is the least restrictive. For content that we host ourselves, like YouTube, we have far more restrictive and detailed community guidelines, prohibiting hateful, sexual or violent content. And when we make money from the content in question, like through advertising, we have the strictest policies, with highly detailed policies and specifications on everything from weapons to recreational drugs to profanities. “Of course the scale at which this happens is immense, so we rely largely on people to flag content, which then triggers a rapid review, and removal if appropriate.

“Technology will help scale this process in the years ahead. Machine learning – essentially, helping computers to see and learn things –is still in its early stages, but is already helping to flag controversial videos or toxic online comments for human review.”

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