US Supreme Court Divided Over How Google Settled Privacy Case

U.S. Supreme Court justices, in an internet privacy case involving Google, disagreed on Wednesday over whether to rein in a form of settlement in class action lawsuits that awards money to charities and other third parties instead of to people affected by the alleged wrongdoing.

The $8.5 million Google settlement was challenged by an official at a Washington-based conservative think tank, and some of the court’s conservative justices during an hour of arguments in the case shared his concerns about potential abuses in these awards, including excessive fees going to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Some of the liberal justices emphasized that such settlements can funnel money to good use in instances in which dividing the money among large numbers of plaintiffs would result in negligible per-person payments. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the high court.

The case began when a California resident named Paloma Gaos filed a proposed class action lawsuit in 2010 in San Jose federal court claiming Google’s search protocols violated federal privacy law by disclosing users’ search terms to other websites. Google is part of Alphabet Inc.

A lower court upheld the settlement the company agreed to pay in 2013 to resolve the claims.

Critics have said the settlements, known as “cy pres” [pronounced “see pray”] awards, are unfair and encourage frivolous lawsuits, conflicts of interest and collusion between both sides to minimize damages for defendants while maximizing fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Supporters have said these settlements can benefit causes important to victims and support underfunded entities, such as legal aid.

During the arguments, several justices, both liberal and conservative, wondered whether the plaintiffs had suffered harm through the disclosure of their internet searches, sufficient to justify suing in federal court, signaling they may dismiss the case rather than deciding the fate of cy pres settlements.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer seemed doubtful that simple searches, of one’s own name for instance, would be enough to sustain a privacy lawsuit.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh appeared to disagree.

“I don’t think anyone would want … everything they searched for disclosed to other people,” Kavanaugh said. “That seems a harm.”

Google agreed in the settlement to disclose on its website how users’ search terms are shared but was not required to change its behavior. The three main plaintiffs received $5,000 each for representing the class. Their attorneys received about $2.1 million.

Under the settlement, the rest of the money would go to organizations or projects that promote internet privacy, including at Stanford University and AARP, a lobbying group for older Americans, but nothing to the millions of Google users who the plaintiffs were to have represented in the class action.

Cy pres awards, which remain rare, give money that cannot feasibly be distributed to participants in a class action suit to unrelated entities as long as it would be in the plaintiffs’ interests.

‘A sensible system’

While wrestling over the privacy aspects of Google searches, the justices also disagreed about the settlement both sides reached. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito raised concerns that the money would go to groups that some plaintiffs might not like but have no say in opposing.

“How can such a system be regarded as a sensible system?” Alito asked.

Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative, noted that AARP engages in political activity, an issue that the Google deal’s opponents, led by Ted Frank, director of litigation for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, had raised.

Google has called Frank a “professional objector.”

Roberts also said it was “fishy” that settlement money could be directed to institutions to which Google already was a donor. Some beneficiary institutions also were the alma mater of lawyers involved in the case, Kavanaugh noted.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Frank, who argued the case on Wednesday, that at least the plaintiffs get an “indirect benefit” from the settlement.

“It seems like the system is working,” added Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal.

In endorsing the Google settlement last year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said each of the 129 million U.S. Google users who theoretically could have claimed part of it would have received “a paltry 4 cents in recovery.”

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Fitch Shifts Mexico Debt Outlook From Stable to Negative

Fitch Ratings changed its outlook on Mexico’s long-term foreign-currency debt issues Wednesday from “stable” to “negative,” citing the potential policies of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has tried to smooth anxieties in the business community, but upset many on Monday by cancelling a partly built, $13 billion new airport on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The private sector had strongly backed the airport project, but Lopez Obrador called it wasteful. Instead he plans to upgrade existing commercial and military airports. He made the decision based on a public referendum that was poorly organized and drew only about 1 percent of the country’s voters.

 

Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director at Moody’s Analytics, said the decision to cancel the airport project “added not only volatility but also uncertainty to the economy’s future, because it signals that policymaking in the new administration can be based more on such kind of subjective consultation and less on technical or fundamentals consistent with the country’s needs.”

“The cancellation has certainly introduced an element of uncertainty in markets and investors,” Coutino wrote, “which could start affecting confidence and credibility.”

Fitch confirmed its BBB+ investment-grade rating for Mexican government debt, but said Wednesday “there are risks that the follow-through on previously approved reforms, for example in the energy sector, could stall.”

Lopez Obrador has said he will review private concessionary oil exploration contracts granted under current President Enrique Pena Nieto’s energy reform, but won’t cancel them if they were fairly granted. The fear is that future exploration contracts may be delayed or cancelled.

Lopez Obrador won’t take office until December1, but has already announced major policy decisions.

 

Some of his policy announcements – like fiscal restraint, respect for the independence of the central banks and a pledge to avoid new debt – earned praise from investors.

But Fitch noted the decision to cancel the airport “sends a negative signal to investors.”

Lopez Obrador has also pledged to have the state-owned oil company, Pemex, build more refineries to lower imports of gasoline.

Fitch wrote that this type of proposal will “would entail higher borrowing and larger contingent liabilities to the government.”

 

 

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Порошенко: в Україні мінімальну зарплату отримує понад 4,5 мільйони людей

Мінімальну зарплату офіційно отримує понад 4,5 мільйони людей в Україні, повідомив президент України Петро Порошенко під час зустрічі з представниками бізнесу.

«Зараз в Україні понад 4,5 мільйони людей працює за мінімальну заробітну плату. Це неправильно і це означає, що нам є куди рухатися», – сказав Порошенко.

Він зазначив, що «є два шляхи»: підвищувати мінімальну заробітну плану або проводити детінізацію зарплат.

З 1 січня 2018 року мінімальна зарплата була встановлена на рівні 3 723 гривень. Уряд обіцяє, що у 2019 році «мінімалка» зросте до 4 170 гривень.

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Birthday Blues for Bitcoin as Investors Face Year-on-Year Loss

Bitcoin was heading towards a year-on-year loss on Wednesday, its 10th birthday, the first loss since last year’s bull market, when the original and biggest digital coin muscled its way to worldwide attention with months of frenzied buying.

By 1300 GMT, bitcoin was trading at $6,263 on the BitStamp exchange, leaving investors who had bought it on Halloween 2017 facing yearly losses of nearly 3 percent.

A year ago, bitcoin closed at $6,443.22 as it tore towards a record high of near $20,000, hit in December.

That run, fueled by frenzied buying by retail investors from South Korea to the United States, pushed bitcoin to calendar-year gains of over 1,300 percent.

Ten years ago, Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s still-unidentified founder, released a white paper detailing the need for an online currency that could be used for payments without the involvement of a third party, such as a bank.

Traders and market participants said the Halloween milestone was inevitable, given losses of around 70 percent from bitcoin’s peak and the continuing but incomplete shift towards investment by mainstream financial firms.

“The value mechanisms of crypto and bitcoin today are based more on underlying tech than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out),” said Josh Bramley, head trader at crypto wealth management firm Blockstars.

Growing use of blockchain – the distributed ledger technology that underpins bitcoin – is now powering valuations of the digital currency, he said, cautioning that some expectations for widespread use have not yet materialized.

Others said improvements to infrastructure such as custody services may allow mainstream investors who are wary of buying bitcoin to take positions.

“We see behind closed doors financial and non-financial institutions beavering away to create the infrastructure,” said Ben Sebley, head of brokerage at NKB Group, a blockchain advisory and investment firm.

Bitcoin has endured year-on-year losses before, according to data from CryptoCompare, most recently in 2015.

Retail investors still account for a strong proportion of trading, market players said.

Investors who bet early on bitcoin and have stuck with it have faced a roller-coaster ride in its first decade. Many told Reuters they are optimistic that they are still onto a winner.

 

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UK-Canadian ‘Grand Committee’ Seeks to Question Zuckerberg

Parliamentary committees in Britain and Canada on Wednesday urged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before a joint hearing of international lawmakers examining fake news and the internet.

Damian Collins, the head of the U.K. parliament’s media committee, is joining forces with his Canadian counterpart, Bob Zimmer, to pressure Zuckerberg to personally take part in hearings, as he did before the U.S Congress and the European Parliament. The so-called “international grand committee” session would be held Nov. 27 and could include lawmakers from other countries.

“We understand that it is not possible to make yourself available to all parliaments. However, we believe that your users in other countries need a line of accountability to your organization — directly, via yourself,” the pair said in a letter to Zuckerberg. “We would have thought that this responsibility is something that you would want to take up.”

Social media companies have been under scrutiny in Britain following allegations that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica used data from tens of millions of Facebook accounts to profile voters and help U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. The committee is also investigating the impact of fake news distributed via social media sites globally.

Collins has been irate with Facebook for sending Zuckerberg’s underlings to his committee’s hearings while the leader of the Silicon Valley company declined invitations to attend. Joining forces with Canada — and perhaps other countries — seems designed to prod Zuckerberg and persuade him to change his mind.

“No such joint hearing has ever been held,” the pair wrote. “Given your self-declared objective to ‘fix’ Facebook, and to prevent the platform’s malign use in world affairs and democratic process, we would like to give you the chance to appear at this hearing.”

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Facebook Caught in an Election-security Catch-22

When it comes to dealing with hate speech and attempted election manipulation, Facebook just can’t win.

If it takes a hands-off attitude, it takes the blame for undermining democracy and letting civil society unravel. If it makes the investment necessary to take the problems seriously, it spooks its growth-hungry investors.

That dynamic was on display in Facebook’s earnings report Tuesday, when the social network reported a slight revenue miss but stronger than expected profit for the July-September period.

Shares were volatile in after-hours trading — dropping the most, briefly, when executives discussed a decline in expected revenue growth and increasing expenses during the conference call.

With the myriad problems Facebook is facing, that passes for good news these days. It was definitely an improvement over three months ago, when Facebook shares suffered their worst one-day drop in history, wiping out $119 billion of its market value after executives predicted rising expenses to deal with security issues along with slowing growth.

“Overall, given all the challenges Facebook has faced this year, this is a decent earnings report,” said eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson.

Facebook had 2.27 billion monthly users at the end of the quarter, below the 2.29 billion analysts were expecting. Facebook says it changed the way it calculates users, which reduced the total slightly. The company’s user base was still up 10 percent from 2.07 billion monthly users a year ago.

The company earned $5.14 billion, or $1.76 per share, up 9 percent from $4.71 billion, or $1.59 per share, a year earlier. Revenue was $13.73 billion, an increase of 33 percent, for the July-September period.

Analysts had expected earnings of $1.46 per share on revenue of $13.77 billion, according to FactSet.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg called 2019 “another year of significant investment” during the earnings call. After that, he said “I know that we need to make sure our costs and revenue are better matched over time.”

The company had already warned last quarter that its revenue growth will slow down significantly for at least the rest of this year and that expenses will continue to balloon as it spends on security, hiring more content moderators around the world and on developing its products, be they messaging apps, video or virtual reality headsets.

The following day the stock plunged 19 percent. Shares not only haven’t recovered, they’ve since fallen further amid a broader decline in tech stocks .

Facebook’s investors, users, employees and executives have been grappling not just with questions over how much money the company makes and how many people use it, but its effects on users’ mental health and worries over what it’s doing to political discourse and elections around the world. Is Facebook killing us? Is it killing democracy?

The problems have been relentless for the past two years. Facebook can hardly crawl its way out of one before another comes up. It began with “fake news” and its effects on the 2016 presidential election (a notion Zuckerberg initially dismissed) and continued with claims of bias among conservatives that still haven’t relented.

Then there’s hate speech, hacks and a massive privacy scandal in which Facebook exposed the data of up to 87 million users to a data mining firm, along with resulting moves toward government regulation of social media. Amid all this, there have been sophisticated attempts from Russia and Iran to interfere with elections and stir up political discord in the U.S.

All this would be more than enough to deal with. But the business challenges are also piling up. There are stricter privacy regulations in Europe that can impede how much data it collects on users. Facebook and other tech companies face a new ”digital tax ” in the UK.

On Tuesday, Arjuna Capital and the New York State Common Retirement Fund filed a shareholder proposal asking Facebook to publish a report on its policies for governing what is posted on its platform and explain what it is doing to “address content that threatens democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression.”

“Young users are deleting the app and all users are taking breaks from Facebook,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner at Arjuna Capital. “When you start to see users turn away from the platform, that’s when investors get concerned.”

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than a quarter of U.S. Facebook users have deleted the app from their phones and 42 percent have taken a break for at least a few weeks. Younger users were much more likely to delete the app than their older counterparts.

Nonetheless, Facebook is still enjoying healthy user growth outside the U.S.

Facebook’s stock climbed $4.07, or 2.8 percent, to $150.29 in after-hours trading. The stock had closed at $146.22, down 17 percent year-to-date.

 

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