Securities Law

Apple Inc. Under Continued Scrutiny After iPhone Throttling Admission

MJLST Staffer, Alex Eschenroeder

While innovative tech companies typically receive widespread attention for increasing the speed and performance of a given device, Apple Inc. has received attention in the past few weeks for exactly the opposite reason. Apple’s actions have caught the attention of consumers and consumer advocates around the world, and recently, they have caught the attention of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as well.

 

The action at issue is Apple’s intentional throttling, or slowing down, of iPhone performance. Apple apologized for its intentional throttling on December 28, 2017, in reaction to building pressure from “users and tech analysts” who noticed iPhone slowdowns. In its apology message, Apple focused on the risk of unexpected phone shutdowns resulting from the fact that “[a] chemically aged battery also becomes less capable of delivering peak energy loads, especially in a low state of charge.” Apple asserted that it addressed this risk by delivering an iOS (iPhone operating system) update that “dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown.” In addition to providing its explanation behind the throttling in its message, Apple announced a fifty dollar discount for iPhone battery replacements. However, replacement availability has been limited, and the discount has not stopped investigations and inquiries from multiple parties.

 

Shortly after Apple’s admission, consumer and watchdog groups in France, Italy, and China, submitted questions to Apple. The French consumer group, “Stop Programmed Obsolescence,” filed a complaint in December alleging “that Apple pressures customers to buy new phones by timing the release of new models with operating system upgrades that cause older ones to perform less well.” This complaint sparked an investigation by the Paris prosecutor’s office. Another source of questioning has been from within the US Senate, as South Dakota Senator John Thune wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook that “pressed Apple for answers to a series of questions about how the company decided to throttle back iPhone processing performance in phones with older batteries.”

 

In addition to these sources of pressure, the latest major development is that the SEC and DOJ have initiated their own probes. Both the SEC and the DOJ declined to comment about their investigations. Further, “Apple acknowledged in a statement that it is responding to questions from some government agencies, though it declined to disclose which agencies or any details regarding the questions.” Thus, very little is known at this point about the substance of the investigations. Current speculation includes that, in this type of case, “the SEC could try to fault a public company for failing to make timely disclosures about material information that would affect the stock price.”

 

While a more superficial investigation is possible, it would likely leave critical questions unaddressed. Some questions I would like to vent to Apple are as follows: If Apple’s battery issues cause peak energy load delivery problems primarily in a low state of charge, why does the dynamic management system coded into iOS slow down app launch times even at or near full charge? If the iOS update manages max performance of system components when needed to prevent a shutdown, does that mean a phone that takes longer to launch any given app on any given launch is constantly at risk for shutting down? What would it mean when Apple releases code to deactivate throttling and an iPhone with previously slow app launch times doesn’t turn off immediately? How many other devices does Apple throttling apply to, and when might Apple admit to them? Looking at you, Apple Watch.

 

These questions are not expertly devised, but they represent a reality that Apple will have to grapple with in the coming months: when so many people use your product frequently, there are mountains of user experiences that could be referenced to throw any “explanation” into question. These experiences may help to debunk any likely stories that vary significantly from the truth.


Initial Coin Offerings: Buyer Beware

Kevin Cunningham, MJLST Staffer

 

Initial Coin Offerings, also known as ICOs or token sales, have become a new trend for startup companies raising capital using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. ICOs are conducted online where purchasers use virtual currencies, like bitcoin or ether, or a flat currency, like the U.S. dollar, to pay for a new virtual coin or token created by the company looking to raise money. Promoters usually tell purchasers that the capital raised from the sales will be used to fund development of a digital platform, software, or other project and that the newly created virtual coin may be used to access the platform, use the software, or otherwise participate in the project. The companies that issue ICOs typically promote the offering through its own website or through various online blockchain and virtual currency forums. Some initial sellers may lead buyers of the virtual coins to expect a return on their investment or to participate in a share of the returns provided by the project. After the coins or tokens are issued, they may be resold to others in a secondary market.

 

Depending on the circumstances of each ICO, the virtual coins or tokens that are offered or sold may be considered to be securities. If they are classifiable as securities, the offer and sale of the coins or tokens are subject to the federal securities laws. In July 2017, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a Report of Investigation under Section 21(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 stressing that any ICO that meets the definition of a security in the United States is required to comply with the federal securities law, regardless of whether the securities are purchased with virtual currencies or distributed with blockchain technology.

 

Since the SEC issued its July Report regarding ICOs, the Commission has charged two companies with defrauding investors. In the pair of ICOs purportedly backed by investments in real estate and diamonds, the SEC alleged that the owner of the companies, Maksim Zaslavskly, sold unregistered securities. In one instance, the SEC alleges that, despite the representations to investors of Diamond Reserve Club, Zaslavskly had not purchased any diamonds nor engaged in any business operations.

 

Issues with Initial Coin Offerings continue as the Tezos Foundation was hit with its second class-action lawsuit over its Initial Coin Offering after an ICO contributor alleged breaches of securities laws. The two cases have been filed in the California Superior Court in San Francisco and United States District Court in Florida. The Tezos ICO raised over $232 million just months ago and plaintiffs in the suit say that they have not received the promised tokens. Infighting amongst the owners of the company has led to a significant setback in the venture, which aims to create a computerized network for transactions using blockchain technology. The lawsuit alleges that contributors to the fundraiser were not told that it could take more than three years to purchase the ledger for the project’s source code. Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that the time frame was not disclosed to investors despite it being a material fact.

 

It is likely that many issuers of virtual coins and tokens will have a hard time convincing the SEC and other regulators that its coin is a merely a utility rather than a security. For many of the firms, including Diamond Reserve Club, the problem is that the tokens they are selling for the projects only exist on paper, and so they have no other function than to bring in money. Likewise, most investors currently buy tokens not for their utility, but because they are betting that on an increase in the value of the virtual currency. It seems that this will not be an issue that will be resolved quickly and it is likely that heightened regulatory scrutiny will come due to the continuing claims against ICOs for companies like Tezos.


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.


A New Option for Investors Warry of High Frequency Trading

Spencer Caldwell-McMillan, MJLST Staffer

In his recent paper, The Law and Ethics of High Frequency Trading, which was published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology Issue 17, Volume 1, Steven McNamara examined the cost and benefits of a high frequency trading (HFT) on stock exchanges. He observed that problematic practices such as flash orders and colocation can provide HFT firms with asymmetrical information compared to retail or even sophisticated institutional investors.

In June, a new type of exchange was approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). IEX Group Inc. was granted exchange status from the SEC. Before this designation the firm was handling less than 2% of all equity trades, with this new designation the exchange is likely to see volume increase as orders are routed to the exchange. IEX uses 38 miles of looped fiber optic cable to combat some of the information asymmetry that HFT firms exploit. IEX uses this coil to slow incoming orders down by about 350 microseconds. This is roughly half the time a baseball makes contact with a baseball bat. While this may seem like an insignificant amount of time, the proposal proved extremely controversial. The SEC asked for five revisions to IEX application and released the decision at 8 PM on a Friday.

This speed bump serves two purposes: to stop HFT firms from taking advantage of stale prices found on IEX orders and to prevent them from removing liquidity on other exchanges so that IEX’s customer are unable to fill their orders. Critics of this system claim that the speed bump violates rules that requires exchanges to fulfill orders at the best price. However, IEX pushes back on these points to arrangements like colocation that allows firms to pay for faster access to markets by buying space on the servers of the stock exchanges. These policies allow HFT firms to get information faster than even the most sophisticated investors because of their proximity to the data. IEX began operations as an exchange in August and time will tell whether it can generate profits without compromising their pro-investor stance.

This debate is likely to continue long after public attention has faded from HFT. Institutional investors are the most likely beneficiaries of these changes, in fact, in a letter to the SEC the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, claimed that using IEX to process trades could save the fund millions of dollars a year. More recently, Chicago Stock Exchange has submitted a proposal to include a similar speed bump on its exchange. Taken together these two exchanges would represent a small fraction of the order volume being processed by U.S. exchanges but these changes could have a lasting impact if they drive institutional investors to change their trading behavior.


Policy Proposals for High Frequency Trading

Steven Graziano, MJLST Staffer

In his article, The Law and Ethics of High Frequency Trading, which was published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology Issue 17, Volume 1, Steven McNamara examines the ethics of high frequency trading. High frequency trading is the use of high-speed algorithms to take advantage of minor inefficiencies in trading technologies, and in doing so gain large market returns. McNamara looks into ethical, economic, and legal aspects of high frequency trading. In the course of his discussion McNamara determines that: high frequency trading is a term that actually describes an assortment of different practices; the amount of dollars involved in high frequency trading is declining, but is still a concern for certain types of investors and regulators; a proper analysis of high frequency trading requires use of expectation-based, deontological moral theory; and that modern technology may call into question the use of the Regulation National Market System regime. McNamara concludes that even though high frequency trading may lower costs to most investors, many practices associated with high frequency trading support the position that high frequency trading is not fair.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White has recently commented on the legality, and potential ways to approach, high frequency trading. White, while testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, informed the Congressional Committee that “You don’t paint with the broad brush all high-frequency traders — they have very different strategies.” This sentiment mirrors McNamara’s assertion that the term high-frequency trading actually involves various practices. However, White is seemingly defending some practices, while McNamara has a more negative view.

Differing still from these two views are the results of a study done by United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority. That study concluded with the conclusion that high-frequency trade technologies are not rapidly predicting marketable orders and then trading those orders. However, the study examined practices in Europe, which has less market participants and a slower moving market than the United States.

In conclusion, Steven McNamara offers a very insightful, encompassing look at high frequency trading. His analysis resonates through both White’s testimony, and in the results of the study from the Financial Conduct Authority. Although all three perspectives seemingly stand for somewhat different propositions, what is clear from all three sources is that the practice of high-frequency trading is extremely complex and requires in-depth analysis before making any conclusive policy decisions.