Corporate Ethics

Tesla: Can the Electric Car Company Overcome its CEO’s Erratic (and sometimes illegal) Behavior?

Joe Hallman, MJLST Staffer 

Elon Musk, the ingenious and at times controversial CEO of Tesla, Inc., has been a fixture in the national news cycle of late with many questioning his erratic behavior. Musk has garnered negative attention recently for incidents ranging from publicly smoking marijuana to hurling wild accusations against critics on Twitter. However, Musk’s most significant faux pas in recent months was likely a tweet that resulted in him being charged with securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”).

On August 7, 2018, Musk tweeted “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” The SEC sued Musk in federal court on September 27 for misleading investors with his tweet. Musk settled with the SEC two days later on September 29. The terms of the settlement required Musk to pay a $20 million personal fine and step down as chairman for three years, although he was allowed to remain CEO of the company. Although not charged with fraud, Tesla also settled with the SEC for $20 million.

Tesla’s stock price plummeted shortly after the SEC’s lawsuit was filed. Tesla shares were trading at about $305 prior to the lawsuit and on September 28, the day after the SEC filed suit, Tesla’s shares dropped to about $269. However, after that initial dip Tesla’s stock rebounded, eventually closing at $341.06 on November 6.

Many have questioned Tesla’s viability as a company over the years and it has been a common short sell among investors. However, considering Musk’s curious recent behavior, the stock price has been resilient. Meanwhile, on October 24, Tesla released its 2018 third-quarter earnings report showing surprise profits and positive cash flow. The earnings report is good news for shareholders who eagerly wait to see if Musk’s electric car company can eventually turn the corner and achieve a significantly higher market cap as Musk has promised.

Although Tesla seems to have been largely unaffected by the SEC’s lawsuit and other strange behavior by Musk, other top executives of publicly traded companies will likely take notice and learn from Tesla’s tumultuous past few months. Going forward, I would expect CEO’s of high-profile companies like Tesla to be careful about Twitter usage and seek to avoid negative attention in the press.


In Space We Trust: Regulate the Race

By: Hannah Payne, MJLST Staffer

In 1999, the UN General Assembly launched “World Space Week,” an annual celebration observed from October 4th (the date of Sputnik’s launch in 1957) to October 10th (the day The Outer Space Treaty entered into force in 1967). This year’s theme was “Space Unites the World.” The UN said the theme “celebrates the role of space in bringing the world closer together.” Unfortunately, the words ring hollow in light of the U.S.’s Space Force plans, as well as the recent escalation of inter-planetary militarization by China, Russia and the EU. Additionally, activities of SpaceX and others raise concerns about privatization, space pollution and the plans of the uber-wealthy to leave the world behind. These forces threaten to marginalize the awe-inspiring exploration of space into a scheme concerned only with war, profit, and advancing inequality. The dominance of such interests calls for a coherent system of global space regulation.

Some have observed that many recent activities violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared: “The exploration and use of outer space . . . shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” The treaty also states that space and all celestial bodies are unowned and open to exploration by all. The U.S. and over 100 countries signed and ratified it, and America did not reserve the right to alter its obligations, as it often does in agreements. However, with no real international enforcement mechanism and our ceaseless profit-seeking, countries have—and will continue to—disregard the goals of the 1967 agreement. Last year, Ted Cruz expressed excitement that “the first trillionaire will be made in space.” He proposed amending the treaty to foster commercialization – and correct its erroneous assumption that worthy goals exist besides wealth and power. His motive seems to be formalistic, as was Congress’ in 2015 when it declared in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that “the United States does not, by enactment of this Act, assert sovereignty . . . exclusive rights . . . or ownership of, any celestial body[,]” but in the same act granted U.S. citizens the right to own and sell any “space resource.” Though the U.S. track record of treaty violations makes their disregard of the agreement perhaps unsurprising, the serious consequences of space militarization and privatization call for critical advancement in space regulation.

From an environmental law perspective, the language of the 1967 treaty evokes the seldom-used Public Trust Doctrine (PTD). Traced back to the Roman era, the Public Trust Doctrine is described as “requir[ing] government stewardship of the natural resources upon which society . . . depends for continued existence.” The PTD places the government/sovereign as the trustee, obligated to protect the rights of the public/beneficiary in the trust, which is comprised of things like navigable waterways. It has mostly been applied to water rights, and successfully reclaimed property for the “public good” in Illinois and California. However, in 2012 the Supreme Court suggested that the PTD is no stronger than state common law. Even so, the doctrine should be remembered by those who think the privileged cannot, by right, hoard or destroy resources – including those in space. In the 1970s, Joseph Sax argued for the PTD’s use as sweeping environmental common law. Some have since theorized about the extension of the PTD to space. These scholars identify issues such as the lack of a sovereign to act as trustee. That problem would not likely be solved by allowing every country to exert self-interested sovereignty in space. At least no one has been so bold as to outright claim the moon – yet.

The PTD is just one tool that may be useful in designing a peaceful move forward. The Expanse, a near-future science fiction series in which humanity has colonized the solar system, offers a thought-provoking look ahead. Earth and the moon are governed by the UN. Mars is a sovereign as well, and the asteroid belt a colonial structure with fractured governance. Space is highly commercialized and militarized, and personal opportunity is hard to come by – but humanity has avoided self-destruction. Their global governance allows for some cooperation between Earth and Mars in space. Depending on one’s dreams of the future, the situation represents an overpopulated, inefficiently run hellscape – or a less-bad option out of the possibilities that now seem likely. It begs the question – how do we expand while avoiding astronomical inequality and self-destruction?

Perhaps it is nearly impossible, but Earth needs real, global regulation of outer space. A weak U.N. cannot do it; private companies and wealthy countries should not be given free reign to try. Last month, the U.N. held the First United Nations Conference on Space Law and Policy.  It’s good to see the international community ramping up these discussions. Hopefully, the PTD’s underlying philosophy of equitable preservation will be central to the conversation. Done right, the exploration of space could be the most inspiring, community-building, and even profitable experience for humanity. If approached thoughtfully, inclusively, carefully –  we could have much more than just a Space Force.


“Juuling”: Gen Z’s Alleged Addiction May Mean Major Legal Problems for E-Cigarette Companies

By: Jack Kall, Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Vol. 20 Staffer

With every new week comes new headlines regarding Gen Z and their latest craze. After years of Millennials being cast as the generation responsible for everything wrong in the world, (Business Insider’s list of 19 things Millennials are killing, including everything from homeownership, banks, football, and oil to beer, napkins, cereal, and bars of soap; NPR describing how Millennials are killing Applebee’s; Forbes claiming Millennials might kill home-cooked meals and kitchens) it seems the media has found a new culprit, Gen Z! Gen Z’s supposed addiction to e-cigarettes, specifically to the JUUL brand, is common among the headlines.

Depending on how you define the generation, Gen Z includes anyone born in the years starting with 1995–2000 and ending between 2014–25. Pew Research has yet to name or define the end date of Gen Z, but it defines the “Post-Millennial generation” as those born 1997 and later.

No matter how you define Gen Z, it includes high school students, many of whom are under the legal tobacco consumption age of 18. High schoolers have been a major reason for both the rise of e-cig popularity and for giving JUUL Labs major market share in the e-cig industry. Browse through social media pages popular within the Gen Z community and you’ll inevitably see numerous posts about “Juuling.” However, Gen Z isn’t alone in its supposed obsession with e-cigs, as Leonardo DiCaprio (a member of Gen X) has long been known to appreciate vaping (e.g., 1, 2, 3).

JUUL Labs, which launched in 2015, has been repeatedly investigated for targeting minors through its advertising and sued for targeting teens with false claims of product safety. In 2017, Consumer Reports found that teens who vape are seven times more likely to turn to regular cigarettes. Additionally, the CDC has declared e-cig use among young people a public health concern.

As further research is published, JUUL should expect be the main target of continued legal action. One current case, a nationwide class action with ten named plaintiffs aged above 13, alleges in part that JUUL’s decision to market through social media was aimed at soliciting those under the legal smoking age. Another case, filed on behalf of a high school sophomore, alleges that JUUL is commonplace among his school, including use “on the school bus, in the bathrooms, outside of school and even in class.”

JUUL Labs will hope to continue to have success while under major legal scrutiny for its marketing practices. JUUL, importantly, hopes it can continue to show growth following its impressive financial valuation (most recently raising $1.2 billion in a financing round that valued the company at over $15 billion).


The Data Dilemma for Cell Phone Carriers: To Throttle or Not to Throttle? FTC Seeks to Answer by Suing AT&T Over Speed Limitations for Wireless Customers

Benjamin Borden, MJLST Staff Member

Connecting to the Internet from a mobile device is an invaluable freedom in the modern age. That essential BuzzFeed quiz, artsy instagram picture, or new request on Friendster are all available in an instant. But suddenly, and often without warning, nothing is loading, everything is buffering, and your once treasured piece of hand-held computing brilliance is no better than a cordless phone. Is it broken? Did the satellites fall from the sky? Did I accidentally pick up my friend’s blackberry? All appropriate questions. The explanation behind these dreadfully slow speeds, however, is more often than not a result of data throttling courtesy of wireless service providers. This phenomenon arises from the use of unlimited data plans on the nation’s largest cell phone carriers. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon phased out their unlimited data plans in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This came just a few years after requiring unlimited data plans for new smartphone purchases. Wireless companies argue that tiered data plans offer more flexibility and better value for consumers, while others suggest that the refusal to offer unlimited data plans is motivated by a desire to increase revenue by selling to data hungry consumers.

Despite no longer offering unlimited data plans to new customers, AT&T has allowed customers who previously signed up for these plans to continue that service. Verizon also allows users to continue, but refuses to offer discounts on new phones if they keep unlimited plans. Grandfathering these users into unlimited data plans, however, meant that wireless companies had millions of customers able to stream movies, download music, and post to social media without restraint, and more importantly, without a surcharge. Naturally, this was deemed to be too much freedom. So, data throttling was born. Once a user of an unlimited data plan goes over a certain download size, 3-5GB for AT&T in a billable month, their speeds are lowered by 80-90% (to 0.15 mbps in my experience). This speed limit makes even the simplest of smartphone functions an exercise in patience.

I experienced this data throttling firsthand and found myself consistently questioning where my so-called unlimited data had escaped to. Things I took for granted, like using Google Maps to find the closest ice cream shop, were suddenly ordeals taking minutes rather than seconds. Searching Wikipedia to settle that argument with a friend about the plot of Home Alone 4? Minutes. Requesting an Uber? Minutes. Downloading the new Taylor Swift album? Forget about it.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) understands this pain and wants to recoup the losses of consumers who were allegedly duped by the promise of unlimited data, only to have their usage capped. As a result, the FTC is suing AT&T for misleading millions of consumers about unlimited data plans. After recently consulting with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Verizon decided to abandon its data throttling plans. AT&T and Verizon argue that data throttling is a necessary component of network management. The companies suggest that without throttling, carrier service might become interrupted because of heavy data usage by a small group of customers.
AT&T had the opportunity to settle with the FTC, but indicated that it had done nothing wrong and would fight the case in court. AT&T contends that its wireless service contracts clearly informed consumers of the data throttling policy and those customers still signed up for the service. Furthermore, there are other cellular service options for consumers that are dissatisfied with AT&T’s terms. These arguments are unlikely to provide much solace to wireless customers shackled to dial-up level speeds.
If there is a silver lining though, it is this: with my phone acting as a paperweight, I asked those around me for restaurant recommendations rather than turning to yelp, I got a better understanding of my neighborhood by finding my way rather than following the blue dot on my screen, and didn’t think about looking at my phone when having dinner with someone. I was proud. Part of me even wanted to thank AT&T. The only problem? I couldn’t tweet @ATT to send my thanks.


Open Patenting, Innovation, and the Release of the Tesla Patents

Blake Vettel, MJLST Staff Member

In Volume 14 Issue 2 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Mariateresa Maggiolino and Marie Lillá Montagnani proposed a framework for standardized terms and conditions for Open Patenting. This framework set forth a standard system for patent holders to license their patents in order to encourage open innovation, in a way that was easy to administer for patent holders of all sizes. Maggiolino and Montagnani argued for an open patenting scheme in which the patent owner would irrevocably spread their patented knowledge worldwide, based on non-exclusive and no-charge licensing. Futhermore, the licensing system would be centrally operated online and allow the patentee to customize certain clauses in the licensing agreement; while maintaining a few compulsory clauses such as a non-assertion pledge that would keep the license open.

On June 12, 2014 Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, shocked the business world by announcing via blog post that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Musk described his reasoning for opening Tesla’s patents for use by others as a way to encourage innovation and growth within the electric car market, and depicted Tesla’s true competition as gasoline cars instead of electric competitors. By allowing use of their patented technology, Tesla hopes to develop the electric car market and encourage innovation. Some commentators have been skeptical about the altruistic motive behind releasing the patents, arguing that it may in fact be a move intended to entice other electric car manufacturers to produce cars that are compatible with Tesla’s patented charging stations in an effort to develop the network of stations around the country.

However, Musk did not unequivocally release these patents; instead he conditioned their subsequent use upon being in “good faith.” What constitutes a good faith use of Tesla’s technology is not clear, but Tesla could have instead opted for a standardized licensing system as proposed by Maggiolino and Montagnani. A clear standardized licensing scheme with compulsory clauses designed to encourage free movement of patented technology and spur innovation may have been more effective in promoting use of Tesla’s patents. An inventor who wants to use Tesla’s patents may be hesitant under Musk’s promise not to initiate lawsuits, where he could be much more confident of his right to use the patented technology under a licensing agreement. The extent to which Tesla’s patents will be used and their effect on the car market and open innovation is yet to be seen, as is the true value of Tesla’s open innovation.


FCC Issues Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Ensure an Open Internet, Endangers Mid-size E-Commerce Retailers

Emily Harrison, MJLST Staff

The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit twice struck down key provisions of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) orders regarding how to ensure an open Internet. The Commission’s latest articulation is its May 15, 2014 notice of proposed rulemaking, In the Matter of Protecting the Open Internet. According to the proposed rulemaking, it seeks to provide “broadly available, fast and robust Internet as a platform for economic growth, innovation, competition, free expression, and broadband investment and deployment.” The notice of proposed rulemaking includes legal standards previously affirmed by the D.C. Circuit in Verizon v. FCC, 740 F.3d 623 (2014). For example, the FCC relies on Verizon for establishing how the FCC can utilize Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as its source of authority in promulgating Open Internet rules. Additionally, Verizon explained how the FCC can employ a valid “commercially reasonable” standard to monitor the behavior of Internet service providers.

Critics of the FCC’s proposal for network neutrality argue that the proposed standards are insufficient to ensure an open Internet. The proposal arguably allows broadband carriers to offer “paid prioritization” services. The sale of this prioritization not only leads to “fast” and “slow” traffic lanes, but also allows broadband carriers to charge content providers for priority in “allocating the network’s shared resources,” such as the relatively scarce bandwidth between the Internet and an individual broadband subscriber.

Presuming that there is some merit to the critics’ arguments, if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could charge certain e-commerce websites different rates to access a faster connection to customers, the prioritized websites could gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Disadvantaged online retailers could see a relative decrease in their respective revenue. For example, without adequate net neutrality standards, an ISP could prioritize certain websites, such as Amazon or Target, and allow them optimal broadband speeds. Smaller and mid-sized retail stores may only have the capital to access a slower connection. As a result, customers would consistently have a better retail experience on the websites of larger retailers because of the speed in which they can view products or complete transactions. Therefore, insufficient net neutrality policies could potentially have a negative effect on the bottom line of many e-commerce retailers.

Comments can be submitted in response to the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking at: http://www.fcc.gov/comments


Cable TV Providers and the FCC’s Policy-Induced Competition Amidst Changing Consumer Preferences

Daniel Schueppert, MJLST Executive Editor

More and more Americans are getting rid of their cable TV and opting to consume their media of choice through other sources. Roughly 19% of American households with a TV do not subscribe to cable. This change in consumer preferences means that instead of dealing with the infamous “Cable Company Runaround” many households are using their internet connection or tapping into local over-the-air broadcasts to get their TV fix. One of the obvious consequences of this change is that cable TV providers are losing subscribers and may become stuck carrying the costs of existing infrastructure and hardware. Meanwhile, the CEO of Comcast’s cable division announced that “it may take a few years” to fix the company’s customer experience.

In 2011 Ralitza A. Grigorova-Minchev and Tomas W. Hazlett published an article entitled Policy-Induced Competition: The Case of Cable TV Set-Top Boxes in Volume 12 Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. In their article the authors noted that despite the FCC’s policy efforts to bring consumer cable boxes to retail stores like Best Buy, the vast majority of cable subscribing households in America received their cable box from their cable TV operators. In the national cable TV market the two elephants in the room are Comcast and Time Warner Cable. One of these two operators are often the only cable option in certain areas and together they provide over a third of the broadband internet and pay-TV services in the nation. Interestingly, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are currently pursuing a controversial $45 billion merger and in the process both companies are shrewdly negotiating concessions by TV networks and taking shots at Netflix in FCC filings.

The current fad of cutting cable TV implicates a pushback against the traditional policy of vertically integrating media, infrastructure, customer service, and hardware like cable boxes into one service. In contrast to the expensive cable box hardware required and often provided by traditional cable, internet media streaming onto a TV can usually be achieved by any number of relatively low cost and multi-function consumer electronic devices like Google’s Chromecast. This arguably gives customers more control over their media experience by providing the ability to choose which hardware-specific services they bring into their home. If customers no longer want to be part of this vertical model, big companies like Comcast may find it difficult to adjust to changing consumer preferences given the considerable regulatory pressure discussed in Grigorova-Minchev and Hazlett’s article.


To Serve or Not to Serve the Shareholders; That is the Question

by Maya Suresh, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Maya-Suresh.jpgHikma Pharmaceutical Company recently received the 2012 Client Leadership Award of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) due to its strong commitment to the community and leadership in the Pharmaceutical Industry. The award is given to companies that display this commitment through a variety factors, including strong corporate governance. As the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer in the Middle East, Hikma has helped the public by providing affordable and lifesaving medicines to those in need. The CEO of the IFC lauded the corporation for setting the standard for corporate social responsibility within the industry.

The importance of these actions taken by Hikma was the basis for Martin Hirsch’s article, “Side Effects of Corporate Greed: Pharmaceutical Companies Need a Dose of Corporate Social Responsibility,” published in Issue 9.2 in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. The article talks about the tension that exists between the shareholders of pharmaceutical companies and the public the companies strive to serve. The shareholder model of corporate governance focuses on maximizing shareholder profit which often results in the production of lifestyle drugs over drugs that cure life threatening diseases. Lifestyle drugs include medicines for baldness and toe fungus that are in high demand and thus, sold for large profits. However, the lifesaving drugs, that are the most needed, are the ones the pharmaceutical companies refuse to produce. These drugs are mostly in demand by those living in poorer regions of the world. However, they typically cannot afford the high price point the pharmaceutical companies set the drugs at. Thus, the drugs are not bought, even though they are desperately needed, which leads the pharmaceutical companies to stop investing money into developing and producing them.

Hirsch argues that some companies take these actions further by influencing doctors’ diagnoses of patients, in an effort to increase the sales of higher revenue generating drugs. The actions of Hikma could lead consumers to believe that there is hope for the public, and that some companies are beginning to take a stand on this skewed model that has plagued the industry. However, some companies continue the practice of producing lifestyle drugs, versus lifesaving drugs.

WebMD has come under recent criticism for succumbing to that pressure when it should be serving as an objective medical resource for the public. A rigged online test for depression led test takers to believe they may be at risk for depression, when in fact they were not. This served as the perfect example of companies working to serve the BigPharma industry rather than the public. Unfortunately, as Research Associate Rallis asserts in the article, WebMD has no plans to alter its business model and as such, won’t be breaking ties with the industry anytime soon.

There appears to be some hope that the tension within the industry will resolve itself as the actions by Hikma will hopefully rub off on others in the industry. However, it is also clear that there is still work to be done.