Internet

University of Minnesota Partners with Michigan State University to Launch SCOTUS Note

Brandy Hough, MJLST Staffer

 

If you thought your elementary school’s grueling cursive curriculum was all for naught, you’re sadly mistaken. The University of Minnesota, in partnership with Michigan State University, launched a crowdsourcing project this month to transcribe Supreme Court justices’ handwritten conference notes. The project, dubbed SCOTUS Notes, engages “citizen archivists” to decipher and transcribe the justices’ notes, with the goal of making them broadly accessible in an electronic and legible format. If you can spot a cursive Z from a mile away, you might just help write transcribe history.

 

Researchers at the two universities received a three-year federal grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the project, which is hosted on Zooniverse, a large-scale platform for “people-powered research.” The researchers hope that crowdsourcing the work will lead to more efficient and accurate results than could be achieved by staff researchers alone. Project co-director Tim Johnson explains that ten people independently transcribe each page, which allows researchers “to obtain high level agreement scores for every word transcribed—even when the words are really difficult to determine.” At the time of writing, 876 volunteers have registered since the project’s February 13 launch date. You can monitor the project’s progress in real time on the SCOTUS Notes Zooniverse page.

 

In its current phase, SCOTUS Notes aims to harness its volunteer power to transcribe 12,600 pages of conference notes taken by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William J. Brennan related to cases decided between 1959 and 1994. These notes provide valuable insights into judicial decision-making at our nation’s highest level. As explained on the SCOTUS Notes blog:

 

“U.S. Supreme Court justices cast votes in complete secrecy during weekly meetings, which only justices are allowed to attend. During these meetings, the justices discuss, deliberate, and make initial decisions on cases they have heard–many of which address the most important legal and policy issues in the U.S.. The written notes the justices themselves take during these meetings provide the only record of what was said and by whom.”

 

Project co-director, Tim Johnson, adds “I think law students will find that ‘understanding how the sausage is made’ is integral to understanding how and why SCOTUS makes the decisions it does. Without knowing what happens behind the scenes it is hard to really hard to have a fully accurate picture.”

 

In the future, the researchers plan to engage volunteers to transcribe notes of Justices Powell, Douglas, Marshall, Rehnquist and Warren. Upon completion of the project, scotusnotes.org will provide public access to images of the original pages as well as the transcriptions. 

 

For more information or to get involved with the project, visit the SCOTUS Notes page at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/scotus-notes-behind-the-scenes-at-supreme-court-conference.


E-threat: Imminent Danger in the Information Age

MJLST Staffer, Jacob Weindling

 

One of the basic guarantees of the First Amendment is the right to free speech. This right protects the individual from restrictions on speech by the government, but is often invoked as a rhetorical weapon against private individuals or organizations declining to publish another’s words. On the internet, these organizations include some of the most popular discussion platforms in the U.S. including Facebook, Reddit, Yahoo, and Twitter. A key feature of these organizations is their lack of government control. As recenty as 2017, the Supreme Court has identified First Amendment grounds for overturning prohibitions on social media access. Indeed, one of the only major government prohibitions on speech currently in force is the ban on child pornography. Violent rhetoric, meanwhile, continues to fall under the Constitutional protections identified by the Court.

Historically, the Supreme Court has taken a nuanced view of violent speech as it relates to the First Amendment. The Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Contrast this with discussion of a moral responsibility to resort to violence, which the Supreme Court has held to be distinct from preparing a group for imminent violent acts.

With the rise and maturation of the internet, public discourse has entered a new and relatively unchartered territory that the Supreme Court would have been hard-pressed to anticipate at the time of the Brandenburg and Noto decisions. Where once geography served to isolate Neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan into small local chapters, the internet now provides a centralized meeting place for the dissemination and discussion of violent rhetoric. Historically, the Supreme Court concerned itself mightily with the distinction between an imminent call to action and a general discussion of moral imperatives, making clear delineations between the two.

The context of the Brandenburg decision was a pre-information age telecommunications regime. While large amounts of information could be transmitted around the world in relatively short order thanks to development of international commercial air travel, real-time communication was generally limited to telephone conversations between two individuals. An imminent call to action would require substantial real-world logistics, meetings, and preparation, all of which provide significant opportunities for detection and disruption by law enforcement. By comparison, internet forums today provide for near-instant communication between large groups of individuals across the entire world, likely narrowing the window that law enforcement would have to identify and act upon a credible, imminent threat.

At what point does Islamic State recruitment or militant Neo-Nazi organizing on the internet rise to the level of imminent threat? The Supreme Court has not yet decided the issue, many internet businesses have recently begun to take matters into their own hands. Facebook and Youtube have reportedly been more active in policing Islamic State propaganda, while Reddit has taken some steps to remove communities that advocate for rape and violence. Consequently, while the Supreme Court has not yet elected to draw (or redraw) a bright red line in the internet age, many businesses appear to be taking the first steps to draw the line themselves, on their terms.


Airbnb Regulations Spark Controversy, but Have Limited Effect on Super Bowl Market

MJLST Staffer, Sam Louwagie

 

As Super Bowl LII descends upon Minneapolis, many Twin Cities residents are hoping to receive a windfall by renting out their homes to visiting Eagles and Patriots fans. City regulations placed last fall on online short-term rental platforms such as AirBnB, which prompted an outcry from those platforms, do not appear to be having much of an effect on the dramatic surge in supply.

The short-term rental market in Minneapolis has been a renter’s market in the opening days since the Super Bowl matchup was set. There are 5,000 placements in the Twin Cities on AirBnB this week, as compared to 1,000 at this time last year, according to the Star Tribune. The flood of posted housing options has limited prices, as the average listing has cost $240 per night—more than usual, but much less than the thousands of dollars some would-be renters had hoped for. One homeowner told the Star Tribune that she had gotten no interest in her 4,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house just five blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium, and had “cut the price drastically.”

The surge in AirBnB listings comes despite ordinances that went into effect in December in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cities joined a growing list of major U.S. cities that are passing regulations aimed at ensuring guest safety and making a small cut of tax revenue from the rentals. Minneapolis’ ordinance requires a short-term renter to apply for a license with the city, which costs $46 annually. St. Paul’s license costs $40 per year. As of mid-December, according to MinnPost, only 18 applications had been submitted in Minneapolis and only 32 in St. Paul. That would suggest that many of the thousands of listings during Super Bowl week are likely unlicensed. The cities both say they will notify renters they are not in compliance before taking any enforcement action, but a violation will cost $500 in Minneapolis and $300 in St. Paul.

The online rental platforms themselves had strongly objected to the passage of the ordinances, which would require Airbnb to apply for a short-term rental platform license. This would bring a $10,000 annual fee in St. Paul and a $5,000 large platform fee in Minneapolis. According to MinnPost, as of mid-December, no platforms had submitted an application and it was “unclear whether they [would] comply.” Airbnb said in a statement that it believes the regulations violate the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, and that “the ordinance violates the legal rights of Airbnb and its community.”

While the city ordinances created controversy in the legal world, they do not seem to be having a similar effect on the ground in Minneapolis, as Super Bowl guests still have a dramatic surplus of renting options.


Fi-ARRR-e & Fury: Why Even Reading the Pirated Copy of Michael Wolff’s New Book Is Probably Copyright Infringement

By Tim Joyce, MJLST EIC-Emeritus

 

THE SITUATION

Lately I’ve seen several Facebook links to a pirated copy of Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy Michael Wolff expose documenting the first nine months of the President’s tenure. The book reportedly gives deep, behind-the-scenes perspectives on many of Mr. Trump’s most controversial actions, including firing James Comey and accusing President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower.

 

It was therefore not surprising when Trump lawyers slapped a cease & desist letter on Wolff and his publisher. While there are probably volumes yet to be written about the merits of those claims (in my humble opinion: “sorry, bros, that’s not how defamation of a public figure works”), this blog post deals with the copyright implications of sharing and reading the pirated copy of the book, and the ethical quandaries it creates. I’ll start with the straightforward part.

 

THE APPLICABLE LAW

First, it should almost go without saying that the person who initially created the PDF copy of the 300+ page book broke the law. (Full disclosure: I did click on the Google link, but only to verify that it was indeed the book and not just a cover page. It was. Even including the page with copyright information!) I’ll briefly connect the dots for any copyright-novices reading along:

 

    • Wolff is the “author” of the book, a “literary work” that constitutes an “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” [see 17 USC 102’].
    • As the author, one of his copyrights is to control … well … copying. The US Code calls that “reproduction” [see 17 USC 106].
    • He also gets exclusive right to “display” the literary work “by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process” [see 17 USC 101]. Basically, he controls display in any medium like, say, via a Google Drive folder.
    • Unauthorized reproduction, display, and/or distribution is called “infringement” [see 17 USC 501]. There are several specific exceptions carved into the copyright code for different types of creative works, uses, audiences, and other situations. But this doesn’t fall into one of those exceptions.

 

  • So, the anonymous infringer has broken the law.

 

  • [It’s not clear, yet, whether this person is also a criminal under 17 USC 506, because I haven’t seen any evidence of fraudulent intent or acting “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.”]

 

Next, anyone who downloads a copy of the book onto their smartphone or laptop is also an infringer. The same analysis applies as above, only with a different starting point. The underlying material’s copyright is still held by Wolff as the author. Downloading creates a “reproduction,” which is still unauthorized by the copyright owner. Unauthorized exercise of rights held exclusively by the author + no applicable exceptions = infringement.

 

Third, I found myself stuck as to whether I, as a person who had intentionally clicked through into the Google Drive hosting the PDF file, had also technically violated copyright law. Here, I hadn’t downloaded, but merely clicked the link which launched the PDF in a new Chrome tab. The issue I got hung up on was whether that had created a “copy,” that is a “material objects … in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” [17 USC 101]

 

Computer reproductions are tricky, in part because US courts lately haven’t exactly given clear guidance on the matter. (Because I was curious — In Europe and the UK, it seems like there’s an exception for temporary virtual copies, but only when incidental to lawful uses.) There’s some debate as to whether it’s infringement if only the computer is reading the file, and for a purpose different than perceiving the artistic expression. (You may remember the Google Books cases…) However, when it’s humans doing the reading, that “purpose of the copying” argument seems to fall by the wayside.

 

Cases like  Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings have attempted to solve the problem of temporary copies (as when a new browser window opens), but the outcome there (i.e., temporary copies = ok) was based in part on the fact that the streaming service being sued had the right to air the media in question. Their copy-making was merely for the purposes of increasing speed and reducing buffering for their paid subscribers. Here, where the right to distribute the work is decidedly absent, the outcome seems like it should be the opposite. There may be a case out there that deals squarely with this situation, but it’s been awhile since copyright class (yay, graduation!) and I don’t have free access to Westlaw anymore. It’s the best I could do in an afternoon.

 

Of course, an efficient solution here would be to first crack down on the entities and individuals that first make the infringement possible – ISPs and content distributors. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act already gives copyright owners a process to make Facebook take bootleg copies of their stuff down. But that only solves half the problem, in my opinion. We have to reconcile our individual ethics of infringement too.

 

ETHICAL ISSUES, FOR ARTISTS IN PARTICULAR

One of the more troubling aspects of this pirateering that I saw was that the link-shares came from people who make their living in the arts. These are the folks who–rightly, in my opinion–rail against potential “employers” offering “exposure” instead of cold hard cash when they agree to perform. To expect to be paid for your art, while at the same time sharing an illegal copy of someone else’s, is logically inconsistent to me.

 

As a former theater actor and director (read: professional almost-broke person) myself, I can understand the desire to save a few dollars by reading the pirated copy. The economics of making a living performing are tough – often you agree to take certain very-low-paying artistic jobs as loss-leaders toward future jobs. But I have only met a very few of us willing to perform for free, and even fewer who would tolerate rehearsing with the promise of pay only to be stiffed after the performance is done. That’s essentially what’s happening when folks share this bootleg copy of Michael Wolff’s book.

 

I’ve heard some relativistic views on the matter, saying that THIS book containing THIS information is so important NOW, that a little infringement shouldn’t matter. But you could argue that Hamilton, the hit musical about the founding of our nation and government, has equally urgent messages regarding democracy, totalitarianism, individual rights, etc. Should anyone, therefore, be allowed to just walk into the theater and see the show without paying? Should the cast be forced to continue performing even when there is no longer ticket revenue flowing to pay for their efforts? I say that in order to protect justice at all times, we have to protect justice this time.

 

tl;dr

Creating, downloading, and possibly even just viewing the bootleg copy of Michael Wolff’s book linking around Facebook is copyright infringement. We cannot violate this author’s rights now if we expect to have our artistic rights protected tomorrow.

 

Contact Me!

These were just some quick thoughts, and I’m sure there’s more to say on the matter. If you’d like to discuss any copyright issues further, I’m all ears.


Congress, Google Clash Over Sex-Trafficking Liability Law

Samuel Louwagie, MJLST Staffer

Should web companies be held liable when users engage in criminal sex trafficking on the platforms they provide? Members of both political parties in Congress are pushing to make the answer to that question yes, over the opposition of tech giants like Google.

The Communications Decency Act was enacted in 1934. In the early 1990s, as the Internet went live, Congress added Section 230 to the act. That provision protected providers of web platforms from civil liability for content posted by users of those platforms. The act states that in order to “promote the continued development of the internet . . . No provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” That protection, according to the ACLU, “defines Internet culture as we know it.”  

Earlier this month, Congress debated an amendment to Section 230 called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. The act would remove that protection from web platforms that knowingly allow sex trafficking to take place. The proposal comes after the First Circuit Court of Appeals held in March of 2016 that even though Backpage.com played a role in trafficking underage girls, section 230 protected it from liability. Sen. Rob Portman, a co-sponsor of the bill, wrote that it is Congress’ “responsibility to change this law” while “women and children have . . . their most basic rights stripped from them.” And even some tech companies, such as Oracle, have supported the bill.

Google, meanwhile, has resisted such emotional pleas. Its lobbyists have argued that Backpage.com could be criminally prosecuted, and that to remove core protections from internet companies will damage the free nature of the web. Critics, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argue the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was crafted “exceedingly narrowly to target those intentionally engaged in trafficking children.”

The bill has bipartisan support and appears to be gaining steam. The Internet Association, a trade group including Google and Facebook, expressed a willingness at a Congressional hearing to supporting “targeted amendments” to the Communications Decency Act. Whether Google likes it or not, eventually platforms will be at legal risk if they don’t police their content for sex trafficking.


In Doge We Trust

Richard Yo, MJLST Staffer

Despite the closure of virtually all U.S.-based Bitcoin exchanges in 2013 due to Congressional review and the uncertainty with which U.S. banks viewed its viability, the passion for cryptocurrencies has remained strong, especially among technologists and venture capitalists. This passion reached an all-time high in 2017 when one Bitcoin exchanged for 5000 USD.** Not more than five years ago, Bitcoin exchanged for 13 USD. For all its adoring supporters, however, cryptocurrencies have yet to gain traction in mainstream commerce for several reasons.

Cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin, have been notoriously linked to dark web locales such as the now-defunct Silk Road. A current holder of Bitcoin, Litecoin, or Monero, would be hard pressed to find a completely legal way to spend his coins or tokens without second guessing himself. A few legitimate enterprises, such as Microsoft, will accept Bitcoin but only with very strict limitations, effectively scrubbing it of its fiat currency-like qualities.

The price of your token can take a volatile 50% downswing or 3000% upswing in a matter of days, if not hours. If you go to the store expecting to purchase twenty dollars’ worth of groceries, you want to be sure that the amount of groceries you had in mind at the beginning of your trip is approximately the amount of groceries you will be able to bring back home.

After the U.S. closures, cryptocurrency exchanges found havens in countries with strong technology bases. Hotbeds include China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, among others. However, the global stage has recently added more uncertainty to the future of cryptocurrency. In March 2017, the Bank of Japan declared Bitcoin as an official form of payment. Senators in Australia are attempting to do the same. China and Russia, meanwhile, are home to most Bitcoin miners (Bitcoin is “mined” in the sense that transactions are verified by third-party computers, the owners of which are rewarded for their mining with Bitcoins of their own) due to low energy costs in those two nations and yet are highly suspicious of cryptocurrencies. China has recently banned the use of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to generate funds and South Korea has followed suit. Governments are unsure of how best to regulate, or desist from regulating, these exchanges and the companies that provide the token and coins. There’s also a legitimate question as to whether a cryptocurrency can be regulated given the nimbleness of the technology.

On this issue, some of the most popular exchanges are sometimes referred to as “regulated.” In truth, this is usually not in the way that consumers would think a bank or other financial institution is regulated. Instead, the cryptocurrency exchange usually imposes regulations on itself to ensure stability for its client base. It requires several forms of identification and multi-factor authentication that rivals (and sometimes exceeds) the security provided by traditional banks. These were corrections that were necessary after the epic 2014 failure of the then-largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world, Mt. Gox.

Such self-adjustments, self-regulation, and stringency are revealing. In the days of the Clinton administration when internet technology’s ascent was looming, the U.S. government adopted a framework for its regulation. That framework was unassuming and could possibly be pared to a single rule: we will regulate it when it needs regulating. It asked that this technology be left in the hands of those who understand it best and allow it to flourish.

This seems to be the approach that most national governments are taking. They seem to be imposing restrictions only when deemed necessary, not banning cryptocurrencies outright.

For Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the analogous technology may be the “blockchain” that underlies their structure, not the tokens or coins themselves. The blockchain is a digital distributed ledger that provides anonymity, uniformity, and public (or private) access, using complex algorithms to verify and authenticate information. When someone excitedly speaks about the possibilities of Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, they are often describing the features of blockchain technology, not the coin.

Blockchain technology has already proven itself in several fields of business and many others are hoping to utilize it to effectuate the efficient and reliable dissemination and integration of information. This could potentially have sweeping effects in areas such as medical record-keeping or title insurance. It’s too early to know and far too early to place restrictions. Ultimately, cryptocurrencies may be the canary that gets us to better things, not the pickaxe.

 

*Dogecoin is the cryptocurrency favored by the Shina Inu breed of dog, originally created as a practical joke, but having since retained its value and now used as a legitimate form of payment.

**The author holds, or has held, Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, Ripple, and Bitcoin Cash.


Say Goodbye to Net Neutrality: Why FCC Protection of the Open Internet Is Over

Kristin McGaver, MJLST Guest Blogger

[Editor’s Note: Ms. McGaver’s blog topic serves as a nice preview for two articles being published in this Spring’s Issue 18.2, one on the FCC generally by researchers Brent Skorup and Joe Kane, and one on the Open Internet Order more specifically by MJLST Staffer Paul Gaus.]

Net neutrality is a complex issue at the forefront of many current online regulation debates. In these debates, it is often unclear what the concept of “net neutrality” actually entails, what parties and actors it affects, and how many different approaches to its regulation exist. Nevertheless, Ajit Pai—newly appointed chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”)—thinks, “the issue is pretty simple.” Pai is openly opposed to net neutrality and has publicly expressed his intent not to enforce current FCC regulations pertaining to the issue with his recently acquired position of power. This is troubling to many net neutrality supporters. Open Internet advocates are rightfully concerned that Pai will hinder recent success for the advancement and protection of net neutrality achieved under former President Obama, resulting in the FCC’s 2015 “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” Regulation. With Pai at the FCC helm, net neutrality policy in the United States (“US”) is noticeably in flux. Thus, even though official policies protecting net neutrality exist on the books, the circumstances surrounding their enforcement and longevity leave much gray area to be explored, chiseled out, and set into stone.

Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Yet, since 2003 when Tim Wu coined the term, scholars and commentators cannot agree on a standard definition since that very definition is at the base of a multi-layered over-arching debate. In the US, the most recent FCC articulation of net neutrality is defined by three principles—“no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioriti[z]ation.” These principles mean that ISPs should not be allowed to charge companies or websites higher rates for speedier connections or charge the user higher amounts for specific services. The new “bright-line” rules forbid ISPs from restricting access, tampering with Internet traffic, or favoring certain kinds of traffic via the use of “fast lanes.” Markedly, one thing the 2015 Regulation did not completely forbid is “zero-rating” or “the practice of allowing customers to consume content from certain platforms without it counting towards their data plan cap”—a practice many see as violating net neutrality. Even with this and other exceptions, the 2015 Regulation’s passing was not met without resistance: Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas tweeted that the 2015 Regulation was “Obamacare for the Internet.”

Additionally, net neutrality supporters and the FCC majority did not have long to bask in their success after the 2015 Regulation’s approval. The United States Telecom Association and Alamo Broadband quickly challenged it in a lawsuit. Because the new regulation re-classified ISPs as common carriers and therefore subject to the FCC’s authority, Telecom claimed that the FCC was overreaching, harming businesses, and impeding innovation in the field. Fortunately for the FCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the 2015 Regulation in a 2–to–1 decision.

Yet, the waves are far from settling for the FCC and net neutrality supporters in the US. Following the D.C. Circuit’s 2016 decision, American company AT&T and other members of the cable and telecom industry signaled an intent to continue the challenge, potentially all the way to the Supreme Court. More importantly, the lead dissenter to the 2015 Regulation is now chairman of the FCC. In his first few months as Chairman, Ajit Pai declined to comment on whether the FCC plans to enforce the 2015 Regulation. Pai’s “no comment” does not look promising for net neutrality or for those hoping the US will maintain its intent to protect the open Internet as was articulated in the 2015 Regulation.

Although the 2015 Regulation remains on the books, the likelihood that it is carefully enforced, or really enforced at all, is pretty low. This leaves a total lack of accountability for breaching ISPs. Achieving a policy that is not entirely spineless is admittedly complicated in the context of an Internet that is constantly evolving and a market that is increasingly dominated by just a few ISPs. But, effective policies are not impossible, as evidenced by success in the European Union and several of their member states in setting policies that protect and promote net neutrality. It is clear from these examples that effective net neutrality regulation in the online context requires setting, maintaining, and enforcing official articulations of policy. However, with a clear signal from the FCC chairman to back away from the enforcement of a set policy, it will be as if no regulation exists at all.


Why Equity-Based Crowdfunding Is Not Flourishing? — A Comparison Between the US and the UK

Tianxiang Zhou, MJLST Editor

While donation-based crowdfunding (giving money to enterprises or organizations they want to support) is flourishing on online platforms in the US, the equity-based crowdfunding (funding startup enterprises or organizations in return for equity) under the JOBS Act is still staggering as the requirements are proving impractical for most entrepreneurs.

Donation-based crowdfunding is dominating the major crowdfunding websites like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, etc. In March, 2017, Facebook announced that it will introduce a crowdfunding feature that will help users back causes such as education, medical needs, pet medical, crisis relief, personal emergencies and funerals. However, this new crowdfunding feature from Facebook has nothing to do with equity-based crowdfunding; it is only used for donation-based crowdfunding. As for the platforms specialized in crowdfunding,  equity-based crowdfunding projects are difficult to find. If you visit Kickstarter or Indiegogo, most of the crowdfunding projects that appear on the webpages are donation-based crowdfunding project. As of April 2, 2017, there are only four active crowdfunding opportunities appearing on the Indiegogo website that are available for investors. The website stated that “more than 200 (equity-based) projects funded in the past.” (The writer cannot find an equity-based crowdfunding opportunity on Kickstarter or a section to search equity-based crowdfunding opportunities.)

The reason why equity-based crowdfunding is not flourishing is easily apparent. As one article points out, the statutory requirements for Crowdfunding under the JOBS Act “effectively weigh it down to the point of making the crowdfunding exemption utterly useless.” The problems associated with obtaining funding for small businesses that the JOBS Act aims to resolve are still there with crowdfunding: for example, the crowdfunding must be done through a registered broker-dealer and the issuer have to file various disclosure statement including financial statement and annual reports. For smaller businesses, the costs to prepare such reports could be heavily burdensome for the business at their early stage.

Compared to crowdfunding requirements in the US, the UK rules are much easier for issuers to comply with. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) introduced a set of regulations for the peer-to-peer sector in 2014. Before this, the P2P sector did not fall under any regulatory regime. After 2014, the UK government requires platforms to be licensed or to have regulated activities managed by authorized parties. If an investor is deemed a “non-sophisticated” investor constraints are placed on how much they are permitted to invest, in that they must not invest more than 10% of their net investable assets in investments sold via what are called investment-based crowdfunding platforms. Though the rules require communication of the offers and the language and clarity of description used to describe these offers and the awareness of the risk associated with them, much fewer disclosure obligations are required for the issuers such as the filing requirements of annual reports and financial statement.

As a result, the crowdfunding market in the UK is characterized as “less by exchanges that resemble charity, gift giving, and retail, and more by those of financial market exchange” compared with the US. On the UK-based crowdfunding website Crowdcude, there are 14 opening opportunities for investors as of April 2, 17, and there were 494 projects funded. In comparison, the US-based crowdfunding giant Indiegogo’s statement that “more than 200 projects funded in the past” is not very impressive considering the difference between the sizes of the UK’s economy and the US’ economy.

While entrepreneurs in the US are facing many obstacles in funding through equity-based crowdfunding, the UK crowdfunding websites are now providing more equity-based opportunities to the investors, and sometimes even more effective than government-lead programs. The Crowd Data Center publicized a report stating that seed crowdfunding in the UK is more effective in delivering 40% more funding in 2016 than the UK government funded Startup Loans scheme.

As for the concern that the equity-based fraud funding involves too much risk for “unsophisticated investors,” articles pointed out that in countries like UK and Australia where lightly regulated equity crowdfunding platforms welcomed all investors, there is “hardly any instances of fraud.” While the equity-crowdfunding JOBS Act has not failed to prove its efficiency, state laws are devising more options for the issuers with restrictions of SEC Rule 147. (see more from 1000 Days Late & $1 Million Short: The Rise and Rise of Intrastate Equity Crowdfunding). At the same time, the FCA stated that it will also revisit the rules on crowdfunding. It would be interesting to see how the crowdfunding rules will evolve in the future.


Should You Worry That ISPs Can Sell Your Browsing Data?

Joshua Wold, Article Editor

Congress recently voted to overturn the FCC’s October 2016 rules Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services through the Congressional Review Act. As a result, those rules will likely never go into effect. Had the rules been implemented, they would have required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to get customer permission before making certain uses of customer data.

Some commentators, looking the scope of the rules relative to the internet ecosystem as a whole, and the fact that the rules hadn’t yet taken effect, thought that this probably wouldn’t have a huge impact on privacy. Orin Kerr suggested that the overruling of the privacy regulations was unlikely to change what ISPs would do with data, because other laws constrain them. Others, however, were less sanguine. The Verge quoted Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy as saying “For the foreseeable future, we’re going to be living in a commercial surveillance state.”

While the specific context of these privacy regulations is new (the FCC couldn’t regulate ISPs until 2015, when it defined them as telecommunications providers instead of information services), debates over privacy are not. In 2013, MJLST published Adam Thierer’s Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle. In it, the author argues that privacy threats (as well as many other threats from technological advancement) are generally exaggerated. Thierer then lays out a four-part analytic framework for weighing regulation, calling on regulators and politicians to identify clear harms, engage in cost-benefit analysis, consider more permissive regulation, and then evaluate and measure the outcomes of their choices.

Given Minnesota’s response to Congress’s action, the debate over privacy and regulation of ISPs is unlikely to end soon. Other states may consider similar restrictions, or future political changes could lead to a swing back toward regulation. Or, the current movement toward less privacy regulation could continue. In any event, Thierer’s piece, and particularly his framework, may be useful to those wishing the evaluate regulatory policy as ISP regulation progresses.

For a different perspective on ISP regulation, see Paul Gaus’s student note, upcoming in Volume 19, Issue 1. That article will focus on presenting several arguments in favor of regulating ISPs’ privacy practices, and will be a thoughtful contribution to the discussion about privacy in today’s internet.


Confusion Continues After Spokeo

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Many observers hoped the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo v. Robins would bring clarity to whether plaintiffs could establish Article III standing for claims based on future harm from date breaches. John Biglow explored the issue prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in his note It Stands to Reason: An Argument for Article III Standing Based on the Threat of Future Harm in Date Breach Litigation. For those optimistic the Supreme Court would expand access to individuals seeking to litigate their privacy interests, they were disappointed.

Spokeo is a people search engine that generates publicly accessible online profiles on individuals (they had also been the subject of previous FTC data privacy enforcement actions). The plaintiff claimed Spokeo disseminated a false report on him, hampering his ability to find employment. Although the Ninth Circuit held the plaintiff suffered “concrete” and “particularized” harm, the Supreme Court disagreed, claiming the Ninth Circuit analysis applied only to the particularization requirement. The Supreme Court remanded the matter back to the Ninth Circuit, casting doubt on whether the plaintiff suffered concrete harm. Spokeo violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but the Supreme Court characterized the false report as a bare procedural harm, insufficient for Article III standing.

Already, the Circuits are split on how Spokeo impacted consumer data protection lawsuits. The Eighth Circuit held that a cable company’s failure to destroy personally identifiable information of a former customer was a bare procedural harm akin to Spokeo in Braitberg v. Charter Communications. The Eighth Circuit reached this conclusion despite the defendant’s clear violation of the Cable Act. By contrast, the Eleventh Circuit held a plaintiff did have standing when she failed to receive disclosures of her default debt from her creditor under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act in Church v. Accretive Health.

Many observers consider Spokeo an adverse result for consumers seeking to litigate their privacy interests. The Supreme Court punting on the issue continued the divergent application of Article III standing and class action privacy suits among the Circuits.