Regulatory

Zoinks! Can the FTC Unmask Advertisements Disguised by Social Media Influencers?

Jennifer Satterfield, MJLST Staffer

Social media sites like Instagram and YouTube are filled with people known as “influencers.” Influencers are people with a following on social media that use their online fame to promote products and services of a brand. But, with all that power comes great responsibility, and influencers, as a whole, are not being responsible. One huge example of irresponsible influencer activity is the epic failure and fraudulent music festival known as Fyre Festival. Although Fyre Festival promised a luxury, VIP experience on a remote Bahamian island, it was a true nightmare where “attendees were stranded with half-built huts to sleep in and cold cheese sandwiches to eat.” The most prominent legal action was against Fyre’s founders and organizers, Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, including a six-year criminal sentence for wire fraud against McFarland. Nonetheless, a class action lawsuit also targeted the influencers. According to the lawsuit, the influencers did not comply with Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) guidelines and disclose they were being paid to advertise the festival. Instead, “influencers gave the impression that the guest list was full of the Social Elite and other celebrities.” Yet, the blowback against influencers since the Fyre Festival fiasco appears to be minimal.

According to a Mediakix report, “[i]n one year, a top celebrity will post an average of 58 sponsored posts and only 3 may be FTC compliant.” The endorsement guidelines specify that if there is a “material connection” between the influencer and the seller of an advertised product, this connection must be fully disclosed. The FTC even created a nifty guide for influencers to ensure compliance. While disclosure is a small burden and there are several resources informing influencers of their duty to disclose, these guidelines are still largely ignored.

Evens so, the FTC has sent several warning letters to individual influencers over the years, which indicates it is monitoring top influencers’ posts. However, a mere letter is not doing much to stop the ongoing, flippant, and ignorant disregard toward the FTC guidelines. Besides the letters, the FTC rarely takes action against individual influencers. Instead, if the FTC goes after a bad actor, “it’s usually a brand that[] [has] failed to issue firm disclosure guidelines to paid influencers.” Consequently, even though it appears as if the FTC is cracking down on influencers, it is really only going after the companies. Without actual penalties, it is no wonder most influencers are either unaware of the FTC guidelines or continue to blatantly ignore them.

Considering this problem, there is a question of what the FTC can really do about it. One solution is for the FTC to dig in and actually enforce its guidelines against influencers like it did in 2017 with CSGO Lotto and two individual influencers, Trevor Martin and Thomas Cassell. CSGO Lotto was a website in which users could gamble virtual items called “skins” from the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. According to the FTC’s complaint, Martin and Thomas endorsed CSGO Lotto but failed to disclose they were both the owners and officers of the company. CSGO Lotto also paid other influencers to promote the website. The complaint notes that numerous YouTube videos by these influencers either failed to include a sponsorship disclosure in the videos or inconspicuously placed such disclosures “below the fold” in the description box. While the CSGO Lotto action was a huge scandal in the video game industry, it was not widely publicized to the general population. Moreover, Martin and Cassell got away with a mere slap on the wrist—“[t]he [FTC] order settling the charges requires Martin and Cassell to clearly and conspicuously disclose any material connections with an endorser or between an endorser and any promoted product or service.” Thus, it was not enough to compel other influencers into compliance. Instead, if the FTC started enforcement actions against big-name influencers, other influencers may also fear retribution and comply.

On the other hand, the FTC could continue its enforcement against the companies themselves, but this time with more teeth. Currently, the FTC is preparing to take further steps to ensure consumer protection in the world of social media influencers. Recently, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra acknowledged in a public statement that “it is not clear whether our actions are deterring misconduct in the marketplace, due to the limited sanctions we have pursued.” Although Chopra is not interested in pursuing small influencers, but rather the advertisers that pay them, it is possible that enforcement against the companies will cause influencers to comply as well.

Accordingly, Chopra’s next steps include: (1) “[d]eveloping requirements for technology platforms (e.g. Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok) that facilitate and either directly or indirectly profit from influencer marketing;” (2) “[c]odifying elements of the existing endorsement guides into formal rules so that violators can be liable for civil penalties under Section 5(m)(1)(A) and liable for damages under Section 19; 7;” and (3) “[s]pecifying the requirements that companies must adhere to in their contractual arrangements with influencers, including through sample terms that companies can include in contracts.” By pushing some of the enforcement duties onto social media platforms themselves, the FTC gains more monitoring and enforcement capabilities. Furthermore, codifying the guidelines into formal rules gives the FTC teeth to impose civil penalties and creates tangible consequences for those who previously ignored the guidelines. Finally, by actually requiring companies to adhere to these rules via their contract with influencers, influencers will be compelled to follow the guidelines as well. Therefore, under these next steps, paid advertising disclosures on social media can become commonplace. But only time will really tell if the FTC will achieve these steps.


Electric Scooter Regulations in Winter: Why the “Brake” in Service?

Warren Cormack, MJLST Staffer

In the summer of 2018, the city of Minneapolis began a pilot project to introduce 600 electric rental scooters, primarily to the downtown area. The city approved operations for Jump, Lyft, Spin, and Lime in 2019. Two thousand scooters were slated to hit the Minneapolis streets, but the companies deployed less than one thousand to Minneapolis for much of the 2019 season. Still, half a year ago, ride-share scooters from the 2019 authorization could be found all over the streets of Minneapolis and users “racked up about 225,000 rides.”

Minneapolis is a city with a strong winter biking tradition. Yet in February, with winter in full swing, electric scooters are nowhere to be seen. What happened?

The short answer is that Minneapolis’ second pilot program for electric scooters ended in November 2019. When we dig deeper, though, some interesting dynamics affect the use of electric scooters in winter.

Though scooter companies initially targeted warm-weather cities, now colder cities like MilwaukeeBoston, and Minneapolis face challenges associated with operating electric scooters in colder weather. For example, when snow emergencies hit, cities may have to ask companies to remove scooters from the roads.

An important concern for cities is safety. This was a major reason why Minneapolis ended the 2019 scooter pilot in late November. Minneapolis scooter companies agreed that 6 to 10 inches of snow was too much to operate safely. Scooter companies are already being sued for the injuries that they cause, and the odds that someone might injure themselves while riding on snowy ground is higher than when the streets are clear. Still, scooter companies have shown a desire to keep their scooters running unless a winter storm hits.

Though Denver’s weather is not as cold as Minneapolis, it does snow there. Denver’s scooters arrived in May 2018 and the city regulated their numbers within two months. Still, the city did not regulate the months within which the scooters would be available for use. A spokeswoman for Denver Public Works reportedly said: “I think riders are going to have to make their own choices if they want to ride an electric scooter in the winter months.” Denver’s comparable warmth may affect how the city balances safety concerns.

The cold weather is not only an issue for riders. “Scooter companies are still learning how their vehicles perform in various weather conditions and from regular use.” Scooters generally either operate on bike lanes or sidewalks. In either location, the small wheels and limited batteries of scooters can negatively impact their winter-weather suitability. The major scooter models currently in use have minimum operating temperatures of fourteen degrees Fahrenheit. Possibly in response to the limits of popular scooters, Bird (one of the major scooter companies) designed a scooter with more battery and pronounced tire treads. Tier is another company developing scooters that can handle cold weather. The effects of winter may be over-hyped, however. According to a scooter expert, scooters may become slower during the winter, but the cold does not damage their battery.

A final winter issue is simply a lack of riders. Even for European scooter companies that operate throughout the year, about half of the riders stop riding during the winter. Minneapolis data also reflect a roughly 50% decrease from summer’s peak to November. College riders leave home for winter break, prompting companies to reduce the number of deployed scooters. A lack of winter riders caused Lime to ramp down operations in Milwaukee. Though riders in relatively snowy cities like Denver have found that people use scooters through the winter, scooter companies facing higher maintenance costs and lower ridership may be wise to reduce their fleet size.

Scooters may leave for the winter due to safety, maintenance, or lower ridership. This may be caused by city policy or by the companies themselves. If the companies continue to make their scooters more capable of enduring the winter, cities may begin to find themselves at odds with electric scooter companies’ desire to stay open for business.


E-Bikes: Protections, Safety and Liability on the Road

Alex Wolf, MJLST Staffer

E-bikes, or electronic bikes, are kind of a hybrid between an electric scooter and a regular bicycle. In appearance, they’re no different than your normal two-wheeled bike, but e-bikes have a motor that lets the rider reach brisk speeds without much pedaling effort. There are two classes of motors, hub motors and mid-drive motors. Hub motors are installed in the hub gear and mid-drive motors are installed between the pedals at the bottom bracket of the bike. The usual advice for e-bike newbies is to start with a hub motor; it is simpler to install and it has fewer working parts (creating less risk of a slip/accident and lasting longer). However, the mid-drives have now outpaced the hubs in popularity; for biking enthusiasts, the gear shifts feel more natural and the extra power is great for terrain or mountain biking.

E-bikes are on the streets, so states and localities need to decide how to regulate them. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers recently signed a law that incorporates e-bikes into an existing law governing safety regulations for bicycles. The law creates a three-tiered “e-bike class” system, based on the maximum speed the e-bike can reach with its motor. Although e-bike riders don’t need any license or permit to operate, riders must be 16 years or older to ride e-bikes that can reach 28 mph. These regulations are similar to those previously enacted in Illinois and Michigan.

Like electronic scooters, e-bikes pose more safety issues than non-mechanized transportation. Reliable data is very hard to find (as e-bikes are new on the scene), but news reports indicate that older bikers are getting injured at higher rates than others. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would’ve reauthorized electronic scooters and e-bikes on paths and bike lanes. He said that he believed the bill lacked important safety requirements, namely helmet use. However, Governor Phil Murphy of neighboring New Jersey eagerly signed a bill permitting scooters and e-bikes, hoping that “By bringing our motor vehicle laws into the 21st century, we will enable the rollout of e-bikes in Jersey City’s bike share program and expand the transportation options available to New Jerseyans.”

What can we expect for e-bikes in the near future? The annual e-bike market has surpassed $1.5 billion, with recognizable brands like BMW and Harley-Davidson jumping headfirst into this exciting commercial domain. We might soon see the statistic of the number of Americans who bike to work, currently about 1%, tick upwards. Minneapolis’ Nice Ride is leading the way for e-bikes in Minnesota, working with Lyft to bring 2,000 e-bikes to the city sometime in 2020. Minnesota law does not require either a license or a special motorized bicycle permit, but it does have other safety precautions like headlight use and an adult riding along if a minor is operating. So, if you’ve got the means, let it ride!


Impact of China’s Generics Push on Innovator Drug Companies

Sherrie Holdman, MJLST Staffer

With a population of 1.42 billion, China presents a large market for both innovator manufacturer and generic drug companies.  Currently, about 95% of marketed drugs are sold by generics. However, many patients in China opt to use more expensive, imported, brand-name drugs.  In an effort to address this problem, China’s State Council has announced its “Opinions Concerning Reforms of Policies to Improve the Supply and Utilization of Generics” to encourage the people of China to use generic drugs early this year.  As a regulatory document, the Opinion shed light on the future direction of China’s generic market.

The Opinion identifies three important suggestions to guide implementation. The first suggestion is to promote research and development of generic drugs in China.  The Opinion proposes a drug list to be compiled that identifies drugs for which generic counterparts don’t exist yet. The Opinion also encourages the government to develop key technologies in manufacturing generics.  The second suggestion aims to improve the quality and efficacy of generic drugs. Generics will only be approved if their quality and efficacy are equivalent to the original drugs.  To facilitate this goal, the State Council proposes speeding up the conformity assessment of quality and efficacy of generic drugs and improving the quality management of generic drugs.  The third suggestion is to provide policy incentives for generics development, including implementation of a tax policy for generic manufacturers. Under this policy, a generic manufacturer, once designated as a “high technology enterprise,” will have a preferential tax rate of 15%, compared to the 25% rate for other companies.  In order to be a “high technology enterprise,” the generic manufacturer will need to meet certain qualifications. Meanwhile, the Opinion encourages patentees to voluntarily grant compulsory licenses to Chinese generic manufacturers when there is “a serious threat to the public health.”  However, despite its long existence in Chinese patent law and regulation, the compulsory licenses are historically rare in practice, partly because of the difficulty in defining what constitutes a “serious threat to the public health.”    

In order to balance the interests of innovator and generic drug companies, the Opinion provides recommendations for strengthening the enforcement of intellectual property rights.  For example, the Opinion proposes establishing an “early warning patent system” to prevent generic manufacturers from infringing on valid patents and thus mitigating the risk of infringement.  Moreover, the State Council proposed to enhance accessibility of innovative drugs, especially imported oncology drugs, by applying no tariffs on imported new drugs. A five-year patent extension for new drugs was also proposed to enhance the intellectual property protection of innovator drugs.

Following the announcements promulgated in the Opinion, on April 25, 2018, China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) released its “Public Comment Draft of Pharmaceutical Data Exclusivity Implementing Rules (provisional).” The Draft proposes that “innovative new drugs” will enjoy six years of data protection and “innovative therapeutic biologics” will enjoy 12 years of data protection.  By proposing data protection for new drugs, China encourages multinational corporations to include China in international multicenter clinical trials and to concurrently apply for market introduction in China.  Even if the new drug is introduced to China at a later time, the drug will still be entitled to a data protection period (e.g., from one to five years). The public comment period for the Draft was closed on May 31, 2018 and the final rule is expected soon.  

Facing China’s generics push, innovator drug makers can strengthen their IP strategy in numerous ways.  For example, companies should disclose information about the patents in the drug list in a timely manner, making the public and government aware of the patents.  Further, companies should also establish a multi-directional scheme for IP rights protection including not only patent, but also knowhow, trade secret, design, trademark and copyright.


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.


PyeongChang: The Opening Ceremony

MJLST Staffer, Amber Peterson

 

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is always a big show and the 2018 Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea was no exception. Intel created a display that featured a world-record setting 1,218 drones. The display featured drone murmurations that depicted images of a snowboarder that morphed into the Olympic rings using four billion color combinations enabled by onboard LEDs. This display surpassed Intel’s previous Shooting Star drone world record which flew 500 drones simultaneously in Germany in 2016.

Intel’s Shooting Star drones are each about a foot-long, weigh eight ounces, and can fly in formation for up to 20 minutes given the limitations of current lithium-ion battery technology.

While the show is certainly impressive, from a software perspective, it is very much similar to flying a smaller, 300-drone show. The additional drones simply increase the resolution and quality of the images to create more depth. Every drone is operated from a central computer system, which tweaks things such as individual battery life and GPS signal. The drones communicate with this central computer instead of with each other. After animators draw up the show using 3D design software, each individual drone acts as an aerial pixel to fill the night sky.

The only minor tweak that Intel had to make to the design of the drone was to the rotor cages to account for the cold and windy conditions in Pyeongchang. Intel ran test flights in Finland, which has a similar climate to Pyeongchang, to make sure the drones could handle the climate.

This record for the “most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously” may have an asterisk however, since the display was pre-recorded after a last minute logistical issue which prevented the record setting drones from flying live at the ceremony. The show that was pre-recorded last December was instead broadcast during the event.

The South Korean laws and regulations that Intel had to comply with are as follows: 1) the maximum height that a drone can fly is 492 feet and if the flights are higher than this distance, government approval is required; 2) drones can only be flown during the day unless government approval has been given; 3) drones must be operated in a range that is viewable from the naked eye; 4) certain zones are banned for drone flights; and 5) drones must always yield to manned aircraft.

Drone law has developed from the explosion of online shopping in Korea. Korean privacy laws however, are some of the strictest in the world so a vexing issue remains as to how to deal with the invasion of privacy from drones. Maintaining a balance between supporting technological advances and being cognizant of protecting safety and individual rights remains an issue that requires further debate.


Changing Families: Time for a Change in Family Law?

MJLST Staffer, Hannah Mosby

 

Reproductive technology allows individuals to start families where it may not otherwise have been possible. These technologies range from relatively advanced procedures—those using assisted reproductive technology (or “ART,” for short)—to less invasive fertility treatments. ART encompasses procedures like in vitro fertilization—in fact, the CDC defines ART as including “all fertility treatments in which both eggs and embryos are handled” (Link to: https://www.cdc.gov/art/whatis.html)—while other kinds of reproductive assistance range from artificial insemination to self-administered fertility drugs. In a study published by the CDC, the number of ART procedures completed in 2014 in the U.S. alone was almost 170,000. As scientific knowledge grows and new procedures develop, that number will undoubtedly increase.

Individuals choosing to utilize these reproductive technologies, however, can find themselves in legal limbo when it comes to determining parentage. In instances where an individual uses a donor gamete (a sperm or an egg) to conceive, that donor could be a legal parent of the offspring produced—even if that result wasn’t intended by the any of the parties involved. For example, the 2002 version of the Uniform Parentage Act—variations of which have been adopted by many states—provides for the severance of the parental rights of a sperm donor in the event of consent by the “woman,” as well as consent or post-birth action by the “man” assuming paternal rights. If statutory conditions aren’t met, the donor could retain his parental rights over any offspring produced by the procedure. To further complicate things, the use of gendered terms makes it unclear how these statutes apply to same-sex couples. A new version of the Act was proposed in 2017 to comply with the Supreme Court’s recognition of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, but it has yet to be adopted by any state . Even murkier than the laws governing donor gametes are those governing surrogacy contracts, which some states still refuse to legally recognize. Overall, these laws create an environment where even the most intentional pregnancies can have unintended consequences when it comes to establishing legal parentage.

For further illustration, let’s revisit artificial insemination. Jane and John, a Minnesotan couple, decide to undergo an artificial insemination procedure so that Jane can become pregnant. However, they aren’t married. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. 257.56, the couple’s marriage is a necessary condition for the automatic severance of the sperm donor’s parental status—therefore, since Jane and John aren’t married, the sperm donor retains his parental rights. The statute also requires that the procedure be performed “under the supervision of a licensed physician” in order for severance to occur. If there was no doctor present, then the sperm donor—and not John—would have legal parental status over the offspring produced. The example becomes more complicated if the couple is same-sex rather than heterosexual, because the statute requires the consent of the “husband” to the procedure. Further still, if Jane lived in a different state, the sperm donor might be able to establish parental rights after the fact—even if they were initially severed—by maintaining a relationship with the child. As one can imagine, this makes the use of known donors (rather than anonymous donors) particularly complicated.

Ultimately, ART and related procedures provide opportunities for individuals to create the families they want, but could not otherwise have—an enormously impactful medical development. However, utilization of these procedures can produce legal consequences that are unforeseen—and, often, unwanted—by the parents of children born using these procedures. The state law that exists to govern these procedures is varied and lagging. In the age of marriage equality and donor gametes, such laws are highly inadequate. . . In order for society to reap the biggest benefit from these life-creating technologies, the legal world will have to play a serious game of catch-up.

 


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.


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.


The Electric Vehicle: A Microcosm for America’s Problem with Innovation

Zach Sibley, MJLST Staffer

 

Last year, former U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director, David Kappos, criticized a series of changes in patent legislation and case law for weakening innovation protections and driving technology investments towards China. Since then it has become apparent that America’s problem with innovation runs deeper than just the strength of U.S. patent rights. State and federal policies toward new industries also appear to be trending against domestic innovation. One illustrative example is the electric vehicle (EV).

 

EVs offer better technological upsides than their internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) counterparts. Most notably, as our US grid system moves toward “smart” infrastructure that leverages the Internet of Things, EVs can interact with the grid and assist in maximizing the efficiency of its infrastructure in ways not possible with ICEVs. Additionally, with clean air and emission targets imminent—like those in the Clean Air Act or in more stringent state legislation—EVs offer the most immediate impact in reducing mobile source air pollutants, especially in a sector that recently became the highest carbon dioxide emitter. And finally, EVs present electrical utilities that are facing a “death spiral” an opportunity to recover profits by increasing electricity demand.   

 

Recent state and federal policy changes, however, may hinder efforts of EV innovators. Eighteen state legislators have enacted EV fees—including Wisconsin’s recent adoption, and the overturned fee in Oklahoma—ranging from $50 to $300 in some states. Proponents claim the fee creates parity between traditional ICEV drivers and the new EV drivers not paying fuel taxes that fund maintenance of transportation infrastructure. Recent findings, though, suggest EV drivers in some states with the fee were previously paying more upfront in taxes than their ICEV road-mates. The fee also only creates parity when solely focused on the wear and tear all vehicles cause on shared road infrastructure. The calculus for these fees often neglects that EV and ICEV drivers also share the same air resources and yet no tax accompanies EV fees that would also charge ICEVs for their share of wear and tear on air quality.

 

At the federal level, changes in administrative policy are poised to exacerbate the problem further. The freshly proposed GOP tax bill includes a provision to repeal a $7,500 rebate that has made lower cost EVs a more affordable option for middle class drivers. This change should be contrasted with foreign efforts, such as those in the European Union to increase CO2 reduction targets and offer credits for EV purchases. The contrast can be summed up with one commentator’s observation regarding The New York Times who reported, within the span of a few days, about the U.S. EPA’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and then about General Motors moving toward a full electric line in response to the Chinese government. The latter story harkens back to Kappos’ comments at the beginning of this post, where again a changing U.S. legal and regulatory landscaping is driving innovation elsewhere.

 

It is a basic tenant of economics that incentives matter. Even in a state with a robust EV presence like California, critics question the wisdom of assessing fees and repealing incentives this early in a nascent industry offering a promising technological future. The U.S. used to be great because it was the world’s gold standard for innovation: the first light bulb, the first car, the first airplane, the first to the moon, and the first personal computers (to name a few). Our laws need to continue to reflect our innovative identity. Hopefully, with legislation like the STRONG Patents Act of 2017 and a series of state EV incentives on the horizon, we can return to our great innovative roots.