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Published: Mon, 24 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 24 Jul 2017 12:53:38 -0400

 



Banks Flagging Frequent Pharmacy Trips, Bulk DVD Rentals, and Other Ordinary Activity to Turn Over Tips to Government Snoops

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 08:32:00 -0400

American and British banks are monitoring customers' contraception purchases, DVD-rental frequency, dining-out habits, and more in a misguided attempt to detect human traffickers, according to a new report from the British think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Their intrusive and ineffective efforts come at the behest of government agencies, who have been eager to use asset-forfeiture powers against suspected human-trafficking rings. There are just a few problems: sophisticated trafficking operations are generally wise enough not to do suspicious business through U.S.- and U.K.-based consumer banks. And without any obvious or majorly suspicious activity to flag, bank executives have had to get creative, coming up with improbable or absurd metrics that might indicate labor- or sex-trafficking. This, in turn, exposes all sorts of innocent bank customers—including but certainly not limited to adults engaging in consensual sex work—to privacy invasions and potential involvement with the criminal justice system. The U.S. and U.K. banks RUSI researchers interviewed said they were happy to help law enforcement prosecute human traffickers and had little problems turning over financial records for people already arrested or under investigation. But proactively finding potential traffickers themselves proved more difficult. As RUSI explains, "the often unremarkable nature of transactions related to" human trafficking made finding criminals or victims via transaction monitoring a time-consuming and unfruitful endeavor. Yet financial institutions are boxed in by regulations that threaten to punish them severely should they participate in the flow of illegally begotten money, however unwittingly. The bind leaves banks and other financial services eager to cast as wide a net as possible, terminating relationships with "suspicious" customers, monitoring the bank accounts of people they know, or turning their records over to law enforcement rather than risk allegations of not doing enough to comply. Thus far, American and British regulators have given financial firms some guidance on the type of activity to flag, but this guidance has been vague and open to broad interpretation. Banks have carved out varied policies based on this, sometimes also soliciting tips and training from "modern-slavery"-awareness groups. The majority of financial firms RUSI communicated with were "from the Americas (the US in particular)," and had already taken "significant steps" to engage with the issue of human trafficking through monitoring and flagging customer accounts. In 2014, U.S. banks filed 820 suspicious-activity reports with the feds in which the phrase human trafficking appeared (accounting for 0.1 percent of all criminal-suspicion reports), but the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) saw a "tremendous jump" following the release of a related advisory in fall 2015, according to Adam Szubin, former under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence with the U.S. Treasury Department and now acting secretary of the Treasury. So what sorts of activity is being flagged? Cheap travel, online advertising, and large grocery bills: One U.S. bank told RUSI that they monitor frequent travel on cheap airlines; regular payments to classified-ad sites such as Backpage.com; and "unusual shopping patterns." As examples of suspicious shopping activity the bank implicated frequent large supermarket bills or bulk DVD rentals. Sure, such things could simply indicate large families, frequent entertaining, or lack of access to high-speed internet and streaming services—but bank staff said it could also indicate someone holding others in captivity and, as RUSI puts it, "endeavouring to occupy groups held for exploitation when they are not working." (You know, when you're an evil international slaver but don't want your forced-sex harems to get bored!) Once a customer's account is flagged for suspicious activity, bank staff will monitor future transactions more closely and search back through history for previous indicators of trafficki[...]



Vault 7 Versus Snowden: Why Was One Such a Bigger Story?

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Last week Wikileaks finally released its much-hyped "Vault 7" data detailing the CIA's arsenal of hacking tools. The first tranche, consisting of 8,761 documents and attachments from an "isolated, high-security network" in the CIA's Center for Cyber Intelligence, reveals important information about the federal spy body's intrusion techniques, alliances with other government bodies, and internal culture from 2013 to 2016. These new details alone would be explosive. But the media's relative lack of interest in these major revelations makes this story even more curious. The CIA's hacking toolkit, while not surprising to those in the security community, should be downright paranoia-inducing for most Americans. Big Brother Really Is Watching According to the Vault 7 documents, the CIA can hack into most consumer devices, rendering even the strongest encryption techniques useless. Some of the CIA's techniques have been diabolical. For example, one exploit of Samsung smart TVs would surreptitiously spy on owners even though the device appeared to be turned off. Another, more chilling technique could be used to hack a smart car and send its driver careening into a fiery death on the road. Furthermore, the CIA's "UMBRAGE" library of foreign "fingerprints" can make it falsely appear as if other governments are behind its dirty deeds. Most of the conversation so far has revolved around the CIA's trove of "zero day vulnerabilities," computer bugs that are known only to the discoverer (which means that the software industry would have had "zero days" to patch them—get it?). Wikileaks itself has emphasized this dimension of the story: the first batch of documents was called "Year Zero," a title that might refer to the CIA's need to re-build its cyber-arsenal. While the data dump stops short of releasing the full code, the leak describes enough about the CIA's hacking techniques to render them functionally impotent. This is because software providers scrambled to patch up the vulnerabilities soon after they were made public. Assuming that most of the CIA hacks were in the leak, America's top international spy agency could be effectively powerless for the time being, at least in terms of hacking capability. This does not mean we should celebrate. The Wikileaks press release suggests that they were not the first body to get their hands on this cyber-arsenal, reporting that "the archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner." It is possible that hostile groups got their hands on these weapons first, which means that both our "enemies" and our "protectors" could have been hacking and spying on us with these methods for the past few years. Since Wikileaks has not released the entire database to the public yet, some of these vulnerabilities likely remain unpatched. As others have noted, the Vault 7 debacle serves as yet another reminder of the inherent folly in building government-mandated backdoors into secure systems or hoarding zero days to circumvent security. If powerful and capable groups like the CIA and NSA can't protect their cyber-arsenals, why should we expect others to manage it? A Tale of Two Leaks What has been most striking to me about this episode is the amazing lack of interest in the broader dimensions of the story. Compare reactions to the Wikileaks-enabled CIA leaks with reactions to the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks provided by Edward Snowden in 2013. In both cases, a notoriously secretive and powerful U.S. intelligence agency was unmasked before the world, expansive surveillance or intrusion techniques were laid bare, and the public learned of serious vulnerabilities in their privacy or their security (or both). Civil libertarians simultaneously cheered the revelations, while muttering that deep down, they knew it all along. But where the NSA leaks dominated headlines for months and stimulated executive audits and congressional battles, the CIA leaks have mostly been greeted with a shrug. Why? First, there is th[...]



10 Ridiculous Recent Food-Marketing Lawsuits

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 07:55:00 -0500

Class-action lawsuits over food marketing practices have skyrocketed in the past decade, from around 20 at the federal level in 2008 to 118 such suits filed in 2015 and 171 last year. The single most frequent complaint relates to foodmakers' use of terms like natural or nothing artificial, with suits challenging extra space in product packaging also common, according to a new report the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR). Yet far from signaling a wave of action in the consumer interest, these suits are often a sort of legal spam, mass-filed by attorneys and firms that specialize in the practice and collect significant fees for their work while plaintiffs might make out with a few product vouchers. And not only do they deal in frivolous issues far-removed from consumer safety or justice, they also threaten to drive up product prices and drive small companies out of business. According to ILR, a nonprofit research affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this "surge" of class action food-marketing litigation is largely driven by "a small cadre of class action lawyers" and a small number of U.S. law firms. "There are now hundreds of active food class actions in the federal courts and more in state courts," states ILR's new report, The Food Court: Trends in Food and Beverage Class Action Litigation. "A few are so laughable that courts have quickly thrown them out. Some are withdrawn or dismissed, typically as a result of a private settlement." But "many more are litigated for years," culminating in "multi-million dollar settlements that line the pockets of lawyers, but provide little or no benefit to consumers." Why no benefit to consumers? In part, it's beause many cases are ultimately settled out of court, leading to a payout for individual plaintiffs and their lawyers but no change to the allegedly underlying issues. Meanwhile, the price-tag to litigate and settle these cases can be huge for U.S. businesses, and get passed on to all consumers via higher product prices. And at the same time, the consumer "protections" at the heart of many food-marketing lawsuits are the sort most shoppers are likely to find silly, based more on technicalities and theoretical-confusion than any actual consumer objections or corporate intent to mislead. Want an example? According to ILR's research, 50 class-action suits were filed in 2016 over Parmesan-cheese bottles labeled "100% grated Parmesan cheese" that also contain a small amount (2-4 percent) of cellulose, a natural, FDA-approved food-additive that keeps cheese from clumping and is listed on label Ingredient sections. Here are nine more complaints from ILR's catalogue of food-marketing cases gone wild: A lawsuit against small Florida-based cookie company Lenny & Larry's complains that consumers can't really know if their purportedly vegan cookies are actually vegan because they're made in a facility that also processes meat and eggs (which the label notes). One complaint argues that sour cream shouldn't be advertised as natural if it's made with milk that comes from cows who were fed genetically-modified corn or soy A lawsuit against Tito's Handmade Vodka faults the company for advertising its vodka as made in an "old fashioned pot still." While no one disputes that it's made in a pot still rather than the now-more-common column still, the plaintiffs say Tito's pot stills are too modern to qualify as "old fashioned." Fourteen lawsuits allege that bottles of McCormick & Company's ground black pepper are slightly under-filled Sixteen lawsuits fault 5-Hour Energy drinks for not providing a full five hours of energy Two lawsuits allege that Starbucks' cold beverages contain too much ice A suit filed against Krispy Kreme claims the company's raspberry-filled donuts are misleading as they don't contain real raspberries, depriving consumers of a "rich source of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Potassium, and dietary fiber" and nutrients that "help fight against cancer, heart and circulatory disease, and age-related decline." Nearly-identical laws[...]



Ted Cruz Takes a Stand Against Operation Choke Point

Thu, 14 Apr 2016 16:52:00 -0400

For the first time since he announced his presidential ambitions, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is doing something I can applaud. Teaming up with fellow Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), the Cruz has introduced a measure to bring down "Operation Choke Point," the Department of Justice program that pressures banks into dropping "risky" clients like porn stars and gun shops.  "Under President Obama’s reign, the DOJ has abandoned its longstanding tradition of staying out of politics and has instead become a partisan arm of the White House," Cruz said in a statement Wednesday. "The Obama administration initiated Operation Choke Point to punish law-abiding small businesses that don’t align with the president’s political leanings. The DOJ should not be abusing its power by trying to bankrupt American citizens for exercising their constitutional rights." Cruz and Lee's bill serves as a companion to the Financial Institution Customer Protection Act (H.R. 766), which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in February. The measure would prohibit federal officials from ordering banks to terminate customer accounts without a good justification for doing so. Specifically, it states that "the appropriate Federal banking agency may not formally or informally request or order a depository institution to terminate a specific customer account or group of customer accounts or to otherwise restrict or discourage a depository institution from entering into or maintaining a banking relationship with a specific customer or group of customers unless—(A) the agency has a material reason for the request or order; and(B) that reason is not based solely on reputation risk to the depository institution."  The bill also states that federal regulators must issue an annual report to Congress providing "the aggregate number of specific customer accounts that the agency requested or ordered a depository institution to terminate during the 1-year period preceding the issuance of the report" and "the legal authority on which the agency relied in making the requests and orders described."  Operation Choke Point was initiated in 2012 and has been controversial all along. "Since the program’s inception, many gun sellers, pawn shops, and short-term lenders reported their bank accounts being shut down," The Daily Signal notes. And they weren't the only ones: many people working in adult entertainment or sex-related businesses, including porn performers and sex-toy sellers, were also affected.  The DOJ still insists that Operation Choke Point "was designed to combat fraud, not to affect the relationship between any lawful business and its bank." But even if regulators' intent was pure, in practice the program has impacted far more folks than just fraudsters. A former Choke Point chief-architect even admitted as much last week. Michael J. Bresnick, who served executive director of the Obama administration's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (under which Operation Choke Point was created), said the program had "unintended but collateral consequences" for consumers. Worried about targeting by Choke Point's enforcers, financial institutions have "raised their hands in frustration and simply avoided lines of business typically associated with higher risk."  frameborder="0" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fcNV4PTjED8" height="340" width="560">[...]



The 'Pink Tax' Is a Myth

Tue, 05 Jan 2016 08:30:00 -0500

During the height of holiday shopping season, a consumer report stoked ample ill-will toward American manufacturers after purporting to show that women's products are priced higher for completely arbitrary reasons. This so-called "pink tax," said the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), affects almost every product marketed at American females, "from cradle to cane."   "The goal of the study was to estimate the price differences male and female shoppers face when buying the same types of items," the department states. It looked at 35 different product types, examining 794 individual items from 91 different brands. "On average, DCA found that women’s products cost 7 percent more than similar products for men," the department concluded. The biggest price differentials were found for personal-care products (13 percent), adult clothing (8 percent), and home health care products (8 percent). The DCA refers to this impact as a "gender tax." Though DCA acknowledges that "there may be legitimate drivers behind some portion of the price discrepancies," it still seems to consider this an unfair situation. Sure, women's products frequently contain different ingredients than do men's. But "individual consumers do not have control over the textiles or ingredients used in the products marketed to them and must make purchasing choices based only on what is available in the marketplace," the report notes.  Of course, individual consumers do have control over which products they buy, though. And while the pink razors with the butterflies on the packaging my be marketed toward women, no one's forcing us to buy those over basic blue Bics. If the products in this study really were identical save for some totally non-desired factors, it seems likely that women, or at least a larger proportion of women, would simply choose the products marketed toward men.  Since they don't, one can jump to one of two conclusions: either women are so brainwashed by marketing that they choose products against their own best interests because of it, or women find some discernible appeal in the women's products—be that different ingredients, cosmetic factors, or whatever else—that make them worth paying more for. I'm going to go with the explanation that grants women a little intelligence and agency.  Many people, however, opted for the former explanation. And while a few outlets focused on consumer choice, highlighting how women should go with men's products where they can, more went the "Ladies, prepare to be outraged" route. "That face wash you're holding in your hand is most likely a marked up version of an identical men's product" (emphasis mine) said millennial women's site Bustle. "Pretty much everything we women buy costs more than a man pays," lamented The Stir. And Femsplain described "the insidious gendered pricing" as a "cornerstone of toxic masculinity."  Think it's just women's media? "As if sexism, discrimination, and a 21 percent wage gap weren’t infuriating enough, a new study reaffirms that being a woman is just flatly more expensive," starts a story at Vocativ. "Ever heard of the 'pink tax'?" asks Upworthy. "It's real and cutting into women's finances in a big way." The New York Times editorial board even floats the idea of "legislative relief" from the "gender tax. Alas, this sillier yet more regulation-friendly narrative has also been embraced by government officials. Because if manufacturers can use gender to turn a profit, why can't the government use feminism for its own aims and gains? "Women should not have to pay more than men for our everyday items," DCA Commissioner Julie Menin told Broadly. "Combating gender pricing is a key issue in the fight against inequality in our country." [...]



It's Time To Embrace Free-Market Existentialism!

Wed, 30 Dec 2015 12:00:00 -0500

I am all alone, not in a despairing existentialist place, though sometimes I go there. No, I am all alone in the intersection of circles in a Venn diagram. The first circle represents the set of free-market philosophers and the second circle represents the set of existentialist philosophers. Free-market existentialism? The very idea, which is the subject of my new book, makes some people cringe. A friend of mine was "horrified," as he put it, when I told him about what I had planned in connecting existentialism and capitalism. He warned me that any other self-identifying existentialist would be horrified as well. What he could not tell me was why. By the "free market," I don't mean the crony capitalism or crapitalism one finds in the United States, but rather a libertarian economic system in which the government plays no role aside from providing rule of law and protecting property rights.  I define existentialism as a philosophy that reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person. Existentialism is a philosophy of action, not of wallowing in despair. It is stoicism without quietism.  The main link between existentialism and libertarianism is individualism. In both systems of thought, the individual is primary and the individual is responsible. Granted, the sense of individualism characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of individualism characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other inasmuch as both strive for genuine autonomy. Libertarians have long recognized the importance of strong property rights in securing autonomy, and existentialists have long recognized the importance of choosing meaning and subjective values for oneself in developing authenticity. One sense does not necessarily imply the other, but they do fit together well. Existentialists emphasize the importance of subjectively choosing one's values and making one's meaning, and libertarians champion the individual's prerogative to live in any way that does not cause harm to others.  Existentialism and libertarianism both value freedom and responsibility. As with individualism, the sense of freedom characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of freedom characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other. The entrepreneurs whom libertarians celebrate are risk takers and often rebels who feel a sense of exhilaration in taking chances. Existentialists, though, because of their largely negative view of capitalism, have typically ignored or dismissed such entrepreneurs as not-genuine examples of individuals exercising their freedom.  Nonetheless, the entrepreneurial spirit of working for yourself and not being beholden to others fits well with the existentialist ethic of self-reliance. There is a message of personal empowerment in existentialism and free markets, and existentialism can help us avoid the problem of consumerism.  By consumerism, I mean the addictive drive and desire for the newest and latest goods and services for the sake of deriving self-worth and for signaling one's worth to others. Existentialism calls for us to define ourselves as individuals and to resist being defined by external forces. The self-defining existentialist will find consumer culture crass without necessarily rejecting the free market that makes it possible.  One of the great concerns of the political left is that capitalism makes us into mindless drones who simply buy and consume. Of course capitalism provides circumstances that make it easier for a person to live that way, but capitalism can't make you do anything. It is possible to have capitalism without consumerism. Existentialism is actually the ideal balancing agent, the perfect accompaniment to capitalism,[...]



The FDA Targets Vegan Mayonnaise

Thu, 27 Aug 2015 07:30:00 -0400

Once again proving itself more national busybody than necessary defender of consumer safety, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down on potentially misleading mayonnaise labeling. Specifically, the agency objects to Hampton Creek vegan mayonnaise, a condiment that mimics traditional mayonnaise without using egg yolks.   In a warning letter sent to Hampton Creek earlier this month, the FDA noted several "significant violations" of federal regulations. The first complaint is that Hampton Creek uses the term "cholesterol free" on the label of its "Just Mayo" products. Nevermind that Just Mayo is, indeed, a cholesterol-free food. While the FDA allows foods with up to two milligrams of cholesterol per serving to bear claims that they're free of cholesterol, this statement is forbidden on products "customarily consumed" in small amounts if they a) have more than 13 grams of fat per 50 grams and b) fail to "disclose the level of total fat in a serving of the product in immediate proximity to the cholesterol claim."  The FDA also claims Hampton Creek's Just Mayo and Just Mayo Siracha are "misbranded" because they do not meet federal requirements for calling something mayonnaise. Under federal law, only foods 1) containing at least 65 percent vegetable oil, 2)vinegar and/or lemon juice, and 3) some sort of egg-yolk product may be labeled mayonnaise. It can also contain preservatives, salt, sweeteners, spices, flavoring, and monosodium glutamate, but only "provided it does not impart to the mayonnaise a color simulating the color imparted by egg yolk." Any other ingredients are forbidden.  Want to sell mayonnaise with an egg substitute, lime juice, or slightly less vegetable oil? Too bad—the FDA does not think the market can handle such ingredient chaos.  Contra the FDA rules, Hampton Creek's mayo doesn't contain egg yolks (or any other animal-based ingredients). It does, however, contain several ingredients that may up the nutrient factor compared to typical mayo, such as pea protein and beta-carotene. These ingredients are in violation of federal mayonnaise law.  Keep Food Legal director (and Reason columnist) Baylen Linnekin interviewed public health lawyer Michele Simon about the issue last November: BL: Can an egg-less product be mayonnaise? If Just Mayo is mayonnaise, then shouldn't Miracle Whip, which has been forced to call itself "salad dressing" for generations because it didn't fit the FDA definition of mayonnaise, also have the right to use the "mayonnaise" tag? To me, this is one key narrative that's been missing in discussions of this story so far. MS: This is tricky because I do think it’s important to have some standards for what products can be called to protect against outright fraud and adulteration. And again, that’s why intent matters. I am inclined to agree that if Just Mayo is allowed to be called "mayonnaise" under FDA law then so should Miracle Whip. But the main issue here is... an outdated definition and in the 21st century, there is really no reason mayonnaise has to include eggs. BL: What do you think the specific guiding principle should be when it comes to labeling issues like these? I've always argued that "the federal government should '[o]pen up all food labels to any and all statements that aren't demonstrably false.'" Is that a good rule? If not, what would you suggest in its place?  MS: No it’s not, because labels can still be deceptive even when they are not false. That’s why our consumer protection laws do not allow "false or deceptive" marketing, recognizing that these can be, and often are, mutually exclusive ways to fool consumers. For example, FDA does not allow junk foods to be fortified with vitamins (i.e., the "jelly bean rule") because it would deceive the consumer into thinking the product is healthy when it isn’t. As to the mayo wars, the [...]



Confederate Flag Purge Goes Nuts Almost Immediately, Hits Harmless Strategy Games

Thu, 25 Jun 2015 16:10:00 -0400

If we accept the idea that social and consumer pressure is the only proper way to push ugly or distasteful objects out of the marketplace—assuming we think such a thing should happen at all—there’s no real problem with pushes for retailers to stop selling Confederate flags or Confederate flag memorabilia. There is no government censorship. There is no ban. There are business calculations. What do we lose from keeping the merchandise? What do we gain from dropping it? Some folks may not like this equation (especially when a business decides that appealing to your particular interests isn’t financially worth it). But it’s definitely preferable to government mandates banning any business from carrying a particular product or providing a particular service. Nevertheless, the broad nature and huge variety of consumer products can result in retailers making some really weird, apparently really stupid decisions, in the rush to deal with a controversy. And so, today, folks have discovered that mass retailers’ efforts to remove confederate flag merchandise have somehow ended up banning a bunch of strategy games with Civil War settings. Touch Arcade, a site focusing on mobile games, noted today that the Apple store has yanked a bunch of war-related games apparently because they displayed the Confederate Flag for accuracy’s sake, not because they support racism, slavery, and the Old South. Tasos Lazarides of Touch Arcade writes: Apple's Tim Cook has recently spoke against displaying the Confederate flag, so I suppose this development was to be expected. However, censoring historical games (if that is indeed the reason why the games have been pulled) is always very tricky because those games don't glorify or promote a cause but, rather, represent historical events using the symbols and insignia of the period. However, I can also see the political and social pressure mounting at the moment, which makes pulling the games the "safest" action for Apple. Reason reader Joe M alerted us that Civil War-themed strategy board games have also disappeared from Amazon. Two games, War Cry (by top game-maker Wizards of the Coast) and The Guns of Gettysburg (by Mercury Games), now no longer show up on searches at Amazon. I searched independently and was unable to bring up either game. There is no rational argument that strategy war games have any sort of connection to or support the racism of the Confederacy in any way. The games just give players the chance to use their own strategic skills to play out these battles. If a player representing the Confederacy wins, that doesn’t mean he or she supports slavery, and it’s utterly ridiculous to even countenance the idea. Because Apple and Amazon are such huge platforms for third party providers of goods and services, such rash bans could really harm companies. A mobile game developer of Ultimate General: Gettysburg announced they were going to stick to their historical accuracy, even if it means they can no longer appear in the Apple store: We wanted our game to be the most accurate, historical, playable reference of the Battle of Gettysburg. All historical commanders, unit composition and weaponry, key geographical locations to the smallest streams or farms are recreated in our game's battlefield. We receive a lot of letters of gratitude from American teachers who use our game in history curriculum to let kids experience one of the most important battles in American history from the Commander's perspective.    Spielberg’s "Schindler's List" did not try to amend his movie to look more comfortable. The historical "Gettysburg" movie (1993) is still on iTunes. We believe that all historical art forms: books, movies, or games such as ours, help to learn and understand history, depicting events as they were. True stories are more important to us than money. Therefore we ar[...]



Everybody Has Suddenly Noticed Confederate Flag Stuff Is Widely Available (Update: eBay and Amazon Join Ban)

Tue, 23 Jun 2015 11:05:00 -0400

After being contacted by CNN, Walmart, Sears and Kmart have all decided to drop all merchandise from their shops and online that bear the symbol of the confederate flag. As of Monday, CNN was able to find some items on their site: "We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer. We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our web site," said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. "We have a process in place to help lead us to the right decisions when it comes to the merchandise we sell. Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly — this is one of those instances." They worked fast. As of Tuesday morning a search for "confederate flag" didn't offer anything with the familiar symbol, except for the state flag for Mississippi, which has it baked in. Walmart and Sears are obviously empowered to decide for themselves what sort of merchandise they want to carry in their shops, and if they don't want to infuriate their customers with symbols of racism (or perhaps they are trying to draw in new customers by eliminating symbols of racism), more power to them. But CNN takes it a little further. They contacted Amazon and eBay to see if they were going to eliminate Confederate flag merchandise from their site. They have not apparently responded. Both sites still offer Confederate flags for sale. But these are online marketplaces that really don't curate their offerings the way a "brand" like Walmart or Sears does. CNN notes that eBay has a policy against offensive items that "promote hatred or racial supremacy, including historic or current items." If CNN had checked on the site further, maybe they would have discovered that eBay perhaps means this rule literally and does not include symbolic representations that we associate with hatred. It's easy to realize the limits rule means by typing the word "Nazi" into eBay's search engine. You'll immediately get a page full of coins of the Third Reich for collectors, most of which are emblazoned with a swastika. There are historical photos for sale of Nazis in uniform during the war. Clearly the rule doesn't mean what CNN thinks it means (or else somebody at eBay is asleep at the switch). It's one thing to pressure a retailer to drop merchandise. It's another thing to pressure a service that connects individual buyers and sellers to each other. It changes the dynamic from "The places where I shop should maybe not be profiting off selling racist merchandise," to "People should not have or even want these things at all." Obviously, eBay and Amazon can do whatever they please and make decisions based on pleasing customers. They don't have to permit Confederate flag merchandise to be sold through their services if doing so has the potential to harm their business model. But then there's always Craigslist! And if Cragislist won't allow it, people will find some other way to engage in trade. Confederate flag opponents must not make the mistake of confusing using their power as a consumer to pressure their favorite retailers into better behavior with trying to control trade between other people. Judge them all you want, but attempting to stop individuals from engaging in trade over confederate symbols or memorabilia will not purge the symbols from American society. Instead it will breed resentment, backlashes, claims of censorship, and even more angry paranoia.  UPDATE: eBay has informed BuzzFeed in a statement that the will ban the sale of Confederate flags and items containing the image. UPDATE II: Amazon has also declared they will drop Confederate flag-themed merchandise from its stores.[...]



A Drone Just Saw You Window Shopping and Wants to Offer a Deal. Exciting or Scary?

Mon, 23 Feb 2015 15:15:00 -0500

(image) A marketing firm is tracking mobile phone travel patterns with the use of drones in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Is this more or less frightening than the authorities tracking you? It depends on how you feel about people trying to sell you things. The goal, eventually, is for this triangulated information to be used by advertisers to offer deals to potential customers based on proximity. From Venture Beat:

The capture does not involve conversations or personally identifiable information, according to director of marketing and research Smriti Kataria. It uses signal strength, cell tower triangulation, and other indicators to determine where the device is, and that information is then used to map the user's travel patterns.

"Let's say someone is walking near a coffee shop," Kataria said by way of example.

The coffee shop may want to offer in-app ads or discount coupons to people who often walk by but don't enter, as well as to frequent patrons when they are elsewhere. Adnear's client would be the coffee shop or other retailers who want to entice passersby.

Adnear apparently already gathers mobile traffic data like this but has to use people on bikes, cars, and trains and the like. Drones would get them better coverage. Kataria says no data about the user is gathered (they give each phone its own code to track it), and they don't take pictures.

Awesome or awful? I know people whine about advertising and marketing, but I'm finding targeted advertising to be quite the boon. I happen to be in the market for a new dining table and chairs, and I'm not paranoid about online cookies, so my browsers know where I've been visiting. Online targeted advertising has improved to the point that advertisers apparently know which kinds of chairs and tables I've been looking at, so it's serving up ads that aren't just for chairs and tables, but for the same style and (even colors) of chairs I had been looking at and same size and shapes of tables. Far from being disruptive or annoying, this type of advertising is helping me by showing me options and deals that I wouldn't even had known existed otherwise.

So advertising based on knowledge of where you actually are spending your time seems like it would be preferential to yet another ad vainly trying to get you to download some money-grubbing "freemium" mobile game. But people can get weird about targeted advertising. It's like they don't trust their ability to say no when an ad actually offers them something they want or need.

The Federal Aviation Administration just recently released it first round of proposed rules for private commercial drone use. Read about that here.




Is This the End of RadioShack?

Mon, 02 Feb 2015 15:25:00 -0500

(image) Decades before the Apple Store, there was RadioShack. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was where many Americans rushed to purchase their very first home computers, the TRS-80. My family was part of that group, and I distinctly remember being adrift in huge crowds at a store in New Hampshire when my dad got one for us at home. As I was about 8 years old, I recall being more excited about all the remote-control cars they sold there and the Simon-esque handheld games. Once I discovered the TRS-80 could also entertain, it helped launch a lifelong love affair with all things video games. I may frequently forget the names of co-workers and which day of the week it is, but I can recite from memory the final riddle in an extremely early text adventure simply called Haunted House. It is embedded now within my DNA.

That was then; this is now. The home electronic scene has changed dramatically since then, and RadioShack has been rendered redundant. You can still buy all sorts of personal technology devices there, but we live in an age of Wal-Marts and Best Buys (and even Best Buy struggles). It’s look as though RadioShack is about to say good-bye for good. From BloombergBusiness:

RadioShack Corp. is preparing to shut down the almost-century-old retail chain in a bankruptcy deal that would sell about half its store leases to Sprint Corp. and close the rest, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

The locations sold to Sprint would operate under the wireless carrier’s name, meaning RadioShack would cease to exist as a stand-alone retailer, said the people, who declined to be identified because the talks aren’t public.

The negotiations could still break down without a deal being reached, or the terms could change. Sprint and RadioShack also have discussed co-branding the stores, two of the people said. It’s also possible that another bidder could emerge that would buy RadioShack and keep it operating, the people said.

Given that the company has lost 90 percent of its value over the past year, it’s hard to imagine that happening. And if "Weird Al" Yankovic couldn’t staunch the bleeding, then who could?

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It will be somewhat sad to see RadioShack go, in terms of the childhood nostalgia of Gen-Xers and some Baby Boomers (which explains the Weird Al hail mary), but its loss is also a big reminder of how much more accessible personal electronics have become for all Americans. The TRS-80 launched with a home price of $600, the equivalent of $2,300 in 2014 U.S. dollars. An American family today could buy a modestly decent home computer, high-definition television, current generation game console, and a tablet, and still have money left over to pay for an Internet service provider and a Netflix subscription.




Nobody Has a Right to an Anti-Gay Wedding Cake, Either

Mon, 15 Dec 2014 16:50:00 -0500

(image) Theodore Shoebat is the answer to the question, "Why should anybody care so much about freedom of association, anyway?" Shoebat and his father, Walid, have a Christian conservative site that features stories with headlines like "The Homosexual Empire," "America Is Becoming an Agent of Satan (We Are Now Living in Sodom and Gomorrah)," and "America's Most Embarrassing Muslim Spy and His Terrorist Connections Have Been COVERED UP and are NOW EXPOSED."

So probably not the site for me, and a lot of folks, and that's fine. The Internet is a big and wonderful place. Shoebat recently, though, performed an experiment some fans of freedom of association simply ponder. He called a bunch of gay or gay-friendly bakeries to see if they would make a cake for him that says "Gay marriage is wrong." He has posted videos of his conversations on YouTube and you can watch them here.  

Shoebat is kind of his own worst enemy in trying to perform this experiment. He can't keep from referring to the homosexual agenda "in California" and trying to argue with the folks in the other end of the call rather than simply asking if they'd sell him the cakes he wants. And his claim that they all rejected him isn't exactly true. His first call is to a cookie place, not a bakery. After arguing with the woman and saying that she'd be discriminating against him if she refused to make his cookie, she finally says she'll do it, though sarcastically says she'd add a big penis to the cookie. When a baker says they won't make him the cake because "They don't support that," he doesn't respond by saying that he's not asking them to support his position, just make a cake. Instead he asks them why they don't support his statement, which is missing his own point. Shoebat needed to be making the argument that it shouldn't matter whether they agree, because they're just providing a service.

But while it would have been better for a more articulate person to have performed this experiment, it's instructive nevertheless. If bakers are a "public accommodation" as is argued, there's no reason for them to refuse to make these cakes or cookies or what have you. The bakeries would not be saying "Gay marriage is wrong." They're just selling a cake to somebody who believes that. Just as making a gay wedding cake is not an endorsement of gay marriage. It's just fulfilling a customer's orders.

But it's wrong on both counts. Nobody should, by order of the government, have to make Shoebat's stupid cakes. And nobody should be forced to make gay wedding cakes either. Ethical and moral consistency requires demanding both or neither, not one or the other. Somehow some people see that it's obviously wrong for anybody to be forced to make Shoebat's cakes, but not gay wedding cakes.

Related: "Nobody, Gay or Straight, Has a Right to a Wedding Cake"




Microsoft Embraces Bitcoins as a Payment Option

Fri, 12 Dec 2014 14:30:00 -0500

(image) You can now buy digital content for a Windows Phone with bitcoins. Nobody has or wants a Windows Phone, apparently, but fortunately you can also buy things from Microsoft you may actually want with bitcoins, too.

Microsoft is now accepting bitcoins as a payment option for “apps, games, and other digital content from Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox Games, Xbox Music, or Xbox Video stores.” You can’t buy physical products or services yet, you can only use bitcoins in the United States, and if you purchase something with bitcoins, they cannot be refunded. But it’s a start.

Remember how earlier in the year, after prominent bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox was hacked and collapsed and the value of bitcoins plunged, people declared the virtual currency dead or at least doomed? The price has continued to go down—a bitcoin is now worth about a quarter of what it used to be at the start of the year ($335 today as opposed to $1,100).  But we’re seeing it accepted in more and more places.

Engaget notes that other tech consumer companies, like Dell, have embraced bitcoins as well, but Amazon is still resistant. Be sure to check out Reason’s December issue for a look at the future of money.




Apple Pay Readies for Debut

Fri, 17 Oct 2014 13:45:00 -0400

With the roll out of Apple Pay next Monday, the checkout experience is expected to evolve at some of the biggest retailers and restaurants in the United States.

Apple’s mobile payment product, which works on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus for online and brick and mortar store purchases, could very well be a credit card killer, according to industry observers.

There’s no need to reach for a wallet, swipe a credit card or wait for a cashier to make change. Even if you’re not set up on a device equipped with Apple Pay, but others queuing in front of you are, it’s possible the simplicity of the transaction could make waiting in line faster for everyone.




Home Depot: Malware Affected 56 Million Payment Cards

Thu, 18 Sep 2014 17:00:00 -0400

The Home Depot says it has eliminated malware from its U.S. and Canadian networks that affected 56 million unique payment cards between April and September.

The Atlanta-based home improvement retailer said Thursday it has also completed a "major" payment security project that provides enhanced encryption of customers' payment data in the company's U.S. stores.