A brutal year: how ‘techlash’ caught up with Facebook, Google and Amazon

From The Guardian Online:

What goes up must come down, and in 2019, gravity reasserted itself for the tech industry.

After years of relatively unchecked growth, the tech industry found itself on the receiving end of increased scrutiny from lawmakers and the public and attacks from its own employees.

Facebook and Instagram ads were linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process.
Social Media, Fake News, and the hijacking of democracy by reactionary forces at home and from abroad.

“The whole year has been brutal for tech companies,” said Peter Yared, chief executive officer and founder of data compliance firm InCountry. “The techlash we have seen in the rest of the world is just now catching up in the US – it’s been a long time coming.”

From new privacy legislation to internal strife, here are some of the major hurdles the tech industry has faced in the past year.

As the 2020 presidential race intensified, tech companies faced a growing backlash over the campaign-related content they allow on their platforms.Advertisement

In October, Facebook quietly revised its policy banning false claims in advertising to exempt politicians, drawing fierce criticism from users, misinformation watchdogs, and politicians. Following the change in policy, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren took out advertisements on Facebook purposely making false statements to draw attention to the policy.

Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, over the policy change in a congressional hearing in October. “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of factchecking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez asked, as Zuckerberg struggled to answer. “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?”

Meanwhile, other tech companies took the opposite stance.TikTok, whose reported 500 million users makes it one of Facebook’s largest rivals, made clear in a blogpost in October it would not be hosting any political advertisements.

And Facebook rival Twitter banned almost all political advertising in October. Google stated in November it would no longer allow political advertisers to target voters based on their political affiliations.

Read the complete article here.

Fashion Nova’s Secret: Underpaid Workers in Los Angeles Factories

From today’s New York Times:

Fashion Nova has perfected fast fashion for the Instagram era. The mostly online retailer leans on a vast network of celebrities, influencers, and random selfie takers who post about the brand relentlessly on social media. It is built to satisfy a very online clientele, mass-producing cheap clothes that look expensive.

“They need to buy a lot of different styles and probably only wear them a couple times so their Instagram feeds can stay fresh,” Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, said in an interview last year.

To enable that habit, he gives them a constant stream of new options that are priced to sell. The days of $200 jeans are over, if you ask Mr. Saghian. Fashion Nova’s skintight denim goes for $24.99. And, he said, the company can get its clothes made “in less than two weeks,” often by manufacturers in Los Angeles, a short drive from the company’s headquarters.

That model hints at an ugly secret behind the brand’s runaway success: The federal Labor Department has found that many Fashion Nova garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages. Los Angeles is filled with factories that pay workers off the books and as little as possible, battling overseas competitors that can pay even less. Many of the people behind the sewing machines are undocumented, and unlikely to challenge their bosses.

“It has all the advantages of a sweatshop system,” said David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017.

Every year, the department investigates allegations of wage violations at sewing contractors in Los Angeles, showing up unannounced to review payroll data, interview employees and question the owners.

In investigations conducted from 2016 through this year, the department discovered Fashion Nova clothing being made in dozens of factories that owed $3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of workers, according to internal federal documents that summarized the findings and were reviewed by The New York Times.

Read the complete article here.

The Consumer Bureau’s Reckless Plan for Debt Collection

From today’s Wired Magazine:

WE LEARN IN email 101 that hyperlinks from unfamiliar senders are breeding grounds for scams. Microsoft has warned against clicking on foreign links for decades. The Federal Trade Commission has repeatedly cautioned Americans to be wary of malware and phishing expeditions. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission alerted consumers to a new cyber threat it dubbed “smishing”—targeting consumers with deceptive text or SMS messages—and urged consumers to “never click links, reply to text messages or call numbers you don’t recognize.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau apparently skipped these lessons. Despite many warnings, the CFPB has proposed a rule that could require consumers to click on hyperlinks in unfamiliar emails. The proposal allows debt collectors to deliver important information about a debt and a consumer’s rights via links in text messages and emails—without first obtaining consent to electronic communications, as is normally required under federal law.

Debt collectors are required to send a “validation notice” that tells a consumer when a debt has been placed in collection and that the consumer has the right to get information to be able to verify or dispute it. When Congress enacted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in 1977, it considered the validation notice critical to minimizing mistaken identity and errors on the amount or existence of a debt.

The risk of collectors going after the wrong person or wrong amount is much greater today. Since 1977, a new industry has bloomed: debt buying. As director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, I initiated a 2013 study that found nine of the largest debt buyers alone collectively held a debt of $143 billion from more than 90 million consumers. (As of 2017, two of the largest debt buyers, Encore Capital Group and Portfolio Recovery Associates, held a combined debt of$17.6 billion, about the GDP of Iceland.) Debt buyers sell and resell debts for years on end, typically without account records verifying that the debts are accurate, making the validation notice even more essential. Without one, a consumer won’t be told how to dispute a debt, and they may be harassed for a debt they do not owe. According to an analysis of the CFPB’s complaint database, 44 percent of complaints against debt collectors concern attempts to collect a debt that the complainant does not owe. Worse yet, the collector could report the debt to credit reporting agencies, damaging the person’s credit, or even bring suit.

Read the complete article here.

Federal consumer agency hires exec in complaint-ridden Pa. firm as watchdog

From today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

So far this year, more than 1,000 student borrowers have complained to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Washington about the practices of an obscure but powerful Pennsylvania state agency that services their loans.

Now the consumer bureau has hired a high-ranking executive from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency as the nation’s top student loan watchdog — which means that Robert G. Cameron, previously a top compliance official for the agency, will be tasked with evaluating his former employer. Millions of student borrowers know the Pennsylvania organization as FedLoan, American Education Services, or PHEAA.

Critics called Cameron’s appointment another example of the revolving door of executives and staffers between the federal student loan bureaucracy and private companies, and of the overt campaign by the Trump administration to undermine Obama-era protections for student borrowers.

“It is outrageous that an executive from the student loan company that has cheated students and taxpayers — and is at the center of every major industry scandal over the past decade — is now in charge of protecting borrowers’ rights,” Seth Frotman, the former ombudsman and now executive director of the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center.

Op-Ed: Consumer rights are worthless without enforcement by the state

From today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

57 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned pitch for stronger consumer rights.

“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”

Kennedy offered these words of warning on March 15, 1962, a date now celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. He then called on Congress to enact legislation to protect four fundamental consumer rights: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard.

The address has become known as the “consumer bill of rights.” But Kennedy also discussed an equally important issue: how such rights would be enforced. After all, without enforcement, consumer rights are just empty promises.

Consumer rights flourish

The idea of consumer rights was nothing new in 1962.

As I describe in my research on the history of consumer credit regulation, the states took an early interest in protecting ordinary Americans against abuse by lenders and debt collectors, beginning in the earliest days of the republic. Most adopted usury laws limiting the price of credit in the colonial period, exemption laws shielding property from seizure by creditors in the 19th century and more tailored consumer credit regulations in the early and middle 20th century.

What was noteworthy about Kennedy’s address was not his push for more consumer rights, but rather his call for the federal government – “the highest spokesman for all the people” – to act on behalf of consumers instead of ceding the role of consumer protector to the states.

Congress heeded Kennedy’s call and passed a flurry of consumer legislation.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, it required lenders to clearly disclose loan terms through the Truth in Lending Act, mandated fair credit reporting and debt collection practices, created safety standards for cars and other consumer products, and banned discrimination in housing and consumer lending. More recently, in 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and tasked the agency with guarding consumers against unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices in financial services.

The states also reinforced their decades-old consumer laws in the 1960s and ’70s by banning unfair and deceptive acts and practices under state “UDAP” laws.

Accordingly, consumer rights today are far more robust than they were when JFK gave his speech. To be sure, new business practices regularly require that existing laws be updated to address unanticipated threats.

But the biggest challenge today is not the need for new consumer rights. Rather, it is ensuring that existing rights are enforced.

Legal fee recovery and class actions

There are basically two ways to enforce a consumer right: privately with a lawsuit or publicly via regulators.

The biggest barrier to effective private enforcement is financial. First of all, the harm to an individual consumer from a rights violation is often small, reducing the economic incentive to sue. Secondly, to sue in court, a consumer generally requires the assistance of an attorney, who must be paid. Finally, even if the individual goes to court and wins, the damage award is frequently too insignificant to deter the violator from engaging in profitable but illegal practices in the future.

Fortunately, two legal innovations have helped consumers overcome some of these hurdles.

One, rules allowing prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees, expanded with the raft of consumer rights legislation of the late 1960s. These provisions gave consumers the right to recover the costs of their legal representation along with any actual damages for some rights violations.

The other was the birth of the modern class action lawsuit in 1966, which allowed consumers who suffer similar monetary harms to aggregate their claims into a single large lawsuit, leading to multimillion dollar settlements.

Public enforcement

The other way to give consumer rights teeth is through public enforcement. And besides the potential for monetary awards, this method opens the door to other types of remedies for consumers.

For example, the New Jersey attorney general recently sued two auto dealerships, alleging that they sold damaged vehicles at unaffordable prices to “financially vulnerable” customers who were then left stranded when the dealers repossessed the cars without advance warning. The complaint seeks to ban the violators from selling car in the future, in addition to monetary relief.

Enforcement shortfalls

Recent developments, however, raise concerns about the future of consumer rights enforcement through both public and private channels.

The strength of public enforcement is subject to the whims of state and federal officials, who may reduce enforcement resources or refuse to bring enforcement actions.

A prime example is the weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which from 2011 through 2017 helped millions of consumers receive nearly $12 billion back from misbehaving financial institutions. A recent study found that CFPB enforcement activity has declined significantly since the end of 2017, when Richard Cordray, its first director, stepped down.

Paper tigers

Compared with 1962, when President Kennedy put consumer concerns on the national agenda, ordinary Americans now have far more robust rights to safety, to information, to choice and to a fair hearing.

But consumer rights do not enforce themselves. Public enforcement requires funding and willing leaders. Private enforcement requires legal devices that allow consumers to pay attorneys for their work.

Without an ongoing commitment to enforcement, consumer rights may become paper tigers, offering the appearance of protection without any teeth.

Read the complete article here.

Corruption: Cohen’s Testimony Opens New Phase of Turbulence for Trump

From today’s New York Times:

A small group of Republican strategists opposed to President Trump, branding themselves Defending Democracy Together, quietly conducted polling and focus groups last fall to gauge whether the president was vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020. Assembling a presentation for sympathetic political donors, they listed points of weakness for Mr. Trump such as “tweeting/temperament” and “criminality/corruption.”

The group concluded that Mr. Trump’s scandals were not yet badly damaging him with Republican-leaning voters: “Even relatively high information voters aren’t paying particularly close attention to day-to-day scandals,” the presentation stated. But it added that there was “room to educate voters” on the subject.

Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, may have begun that education on Wednesday.

With Mr. Cohen’s appearance before a House committee, the public airing of ethical transgressions by Mr. Trump reached a new phase, one that may be harder to ignore for friends and foes alike. The spectacle of Mr. Trump’s onetime enforcer denouncing him in televised proceedings, detailing a catalog of alleged cruelty and crimes, signaled the pressure the president’s already strained coalition could feel in the coming months as Congress scrutinizes him and the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completes his investigation.

Republicans still find it difficult to imagine that Mr. Trump’s electoral base would ever desert him, though they acknowledge that bond may soon be tested as never before. Mr. Trump’s core supporters — numbering about two in five American voters, polls suggest — have stayed with him through revelations of financial and sexual impropriety, painful electoral setbacks and the longest government shutdown in history.

Read the complete article here.

Senate votes to overturn Trump’s IRS disclosure rule allowing “dark money”

From today’s Politico Online:

The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to reverse a Trump administration policy limiting donor disclosure requirements for political nonprofits in a rare rebuke to the White House.

In a 50-49 vote, the Senate approved a resolution from Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would block the recent Treasury Department change to IRS forms allowing political nonprofits to avoid listing some donors.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined every Democrat in support of the measure, which required only a simple majority to pass under the Congressional Review Act.

“The Trump administration’s dark money rule makes it easier for foreigners and special interests to corrupt and interfere in our elections,” said Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee in a Senate floor speech.

Tester had also been optimistic earlier this week about the resolution’s prospects.

“I think it’s gonna be close but I think we’ve got the votes,” he said Tuesday.

Prior to the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the resolution was an “attempt by some of our Democratic colleagues to undo a pro-privacy reform. … In a climate that is increasingly hostile to certain kinds of political expression and open debate, the last thing Washington needs to do is to chill the exercise of free speech and add to the sense of intimidation.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump’s Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Faces Increased Ethics Scrutiny

From today’s New York Times:

Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior Department and a key figure in President Trump’s push to roll back environmental regulations and ramp up oil drilling, is facing increased scrutiny amid federal investigations into allegations that he abused travel spending and maintained close ties with industries he oversees.

The criticism escalated sharply after reports this week that the Interior Department’s inspector general had referred one of the inquiries to the Justice Department, a potential prelude to a criminal investigation.

T​he​​ investigations have raised questions about Mr. Zinke’s oversight of the Interior Department, where he is essentially the largest land manager in the United States. He has authority over the nation’s 300 million acres of public lands as well as vast waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Zinke faces at least a half-dozen ethics investigations. At least nine other inquiries into alleged ethics violations have been closed, in some cases because Mr. Zinke was cleared, in others because of a lack of cooperation with investigators.

While it is not known which ​inquiry​ has been referred to the Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said it was most likely one examining a Montana land deal that involved an organization run by Mr. Zinke’s wife​ and a development group backed by the chairman of Halliburton, which is one of the nation’s largest companies involved in drilling for oil and gas on public lands.

Read the complete article here.

Freezing Credit Will Now Be Free. Here’s Why You Should Go for It.

From today’s New York Times:

Consumers will soon be able to freeze their credit files without charge. So if you have not yet frozen your files — a recommended step to foil identity theft — now is a good time to take action, consumer advocates say.

Security freezes, often called credit freezes, are “absolutely” the best way to prevent criminals from using your personal information to open new accounts in your name, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy nonprofit group.

Free freezes, which will be available next Friday, were required as part of broader financial legislation signed in May by President Trump.

Free security freezes were already available in some states and in certain situations, but the federal law requires that they be made available nationally. Two of the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, have already abandoned the fees. The third, Experian, said it would begin offering free credit freezes next Friday. To be effective, freezes must be placed at all three bureaus.

Read the complete article here.

‘Eye-popping’ payouts for CEOs follow Trump’s tax cuts, while wages stagnate

From today’s Politico “Finance and Tax” Series:

Some of the biggest winners from President Donald Trump’s new tax law are corporate executives who have reaped gains as their companies buy back a record amount of stock, a practice that rewards shareholders by boosting the value of existing shares.

A POLITICO review of data disclosed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings shows the executives, who often receive most of their compensation in stock, have been profiting handsomely by selling shares since Trump signed the law on Dec. 22 and slashed corporate tax rates to 21 percent. That trend is likely to increase, as Wall Street analysts expect buyback activity to accelerate in the coming weeks.

“It is going to be a parade of eye-popping numbers,” said Pat McGurn, the head of strategic research and analysis at Institutional Shareholder Services, a shareholder advisory firm.

That could undercut the political messaging value of the tax cuts in the Republican campaign to maintain control of Congress in the midterm elections.

The SEC requires company executives to disclose share purchases or sales within two business days. Companies emphasize that their executives’ share sales are often scheduled at regular intervals well in advance. In Banga’s case, he has routinely sold shares once a year, and always in May, since 2013…

Yet the insider sales feed the narrative that corporate tax cuts enrich executives in the short term while yielding less clear long-term benefits for workers and the broader economy. Critics of insider sales argue that they diminish the value of paying C-suite employees in shares — a practice that’s intended to give them a greater stake in the long-term health of the company — and can even raise questions about the motivation for the buybacks themselves.

Following the tax cuts, roughly 28 percent of companies in the S&P 500 mentioned plans to return some of their tax savings to shareholders, according to Morgan Stanley. Public companies announced more than $600 billion in buybacks in the first half of this year — already toppling the previous annual record.

Year to date, buybacks have doubled from the same period a year ago, Merrill Lynch said in a July 24 report, citing its clients’ trading activity. “Last week we noted that buyback activity [was] poised to accelerate over the next six weeks, and indeed, corporate clients’ buybacks picked up to a two-month high and the 6th-highest level in our data history,” the company said.

Read the complete article here.