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A future we haven't imagined, but might forget

Thu, 2014-08-07 01:00

We've been covering the European top court ruling and subsequent battles over the "Right to be forgotten" for some months now. At this point, the motivations of the key players seem clear.

Google wants to organize all of the Internet's information without it saying "redacted" all over it.

A guy who had some debts but paid them -- and apparently 70 thousand other people -- felt like the top result when people search for his name infringes on his right to have that material wiped from the Internet record.

Government officials want to protect citizens and introduce some order to an environment that seems chaotic.

Each kind of party involved has gloomy predictions about the future if the right precautions aren't taken. And while I've envisioned all of those predictions as possible, there's one potential future I didn't imagine: What if only a small number of people request takedowns, but they're all the worst kind of people?

This is what dawned on me while I was reading the news about Wikipedia's first transparency report, which includes information about granted rtbf requests. Among the five Wikipedia entries and 50 links affected: One on an Italian criminal with four life sentences, an Irish bank robber, a musician, a chess player, and an Italian gang (Italy gets two!).

Wikipedia has discouraged us from assuming the anonymous requesters are always the same people whose entries are being impacted. But I feel like it's safe to say these do not seem like hugely important entries. So who is requesting the search results for them be changed? 

I worry that the new European policy will be manipulated not by waves and waves of people who want that awkward photo taken down, like tech companies would have us believe. Nor by people who have legitimate arguments (and we should be cognizant of the importance of second chances).

Instead the policy might be used by a very select few. People who have too much time on their hands (OK maybe not the end of the world). But perhaps also organizations and people that benefit directly from keeping the truth hidden or at least blurred. Even on a small scale, that kind of selective editing can be annoying, and even dangerous.

Tesla teases Reno with a Gigafactory

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:41

Electric car manufacturer Tesla has started work on a huge new battery factory in Reno, Nevada, but don’t let that fool you. Reno may not end up with the factory and the 6,500 jobs it is expected to create.  

Tesla started building in Reno, even though its new “Gigafactory” may not actually be completed there.

On a recent earnings call, CEO Elon Musk said he might start similar construction on one or two other sites. The company is also looking at locations in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

“Before we actually go to the next stage of pouring a lot of concrete though, we want to make sure we have things sorted out at the sort of state level, that the incentives are there that makes sense,” Musk said, adding “on the Nevada side, at this point the ball is on the court of the governor and the state legislature.”

Tesla wants the eventual host state to chip in 10 percent of the factory’s $4-to-$5 billion price tag. While it negotiates, the car maker says it’s worth construction costs to get the factory up and running as soon as possible.

"Any potentially duplicative investments are minor compared to the revenue that could be lost if the launch of Model 3 were affected by any delays at our primary Gigafactory site," the company wrote in its recent investor letter.

“It’s pretty unusual for them to be actually starting construction on a site,” says Tim Bartik, an economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, though he says shopping around for a good deal from states is common.

Still, states should approach these types of deals with caution.

“People should realize that incentives are not a free lunch,” says Bartik. “They do involve costly resources.”

Local officials need to analyze what kind of wages the company will pay or the types of suppliers it might work with.

“Until recently, most states weren’t doing this kind of analysis,” says Josh Goodman, with the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Development Tax Incentives Project. “Sometimes, they might do the analysis on a program that was getting attention because there was a lot of problems there.”

But many of states are wising up, Goodman says, passing laws and requiring periodic reviews of their incentives to be sure they are actually good deals for the state.

Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace

Why Walgreens stepped back from the inversion brink

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:40

Pharmacy company Walgreens announced it is not going to invert after all. 

Corporate inversion is the practice of one company merging with another that's based abroad to avoid taxes or gain access to assets held abroad. At least 47 U.S. corporations have reincorporated overseas in the past decade, more than during the past 20 years combined, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Walgreens first began to buy up British firm Alliance Boots two years ago, purchasing a 45 percent stake in the company and laying out plans to purchase the remaining 55 percent in 2015. At some point, Walgreens considered the possibility of converting the deal to buy Alliance Boots into a deal to invert via Alliance Boots.

“We had to look at whether the structure of the deal would allow for an inversion,” says spokesman Michael Polzin, and that structure proved unworkable. “We’d have to rip up that deal and come up with a new deal.”

There’s a special provision in U.S. tax law that says the inversion doesn’t count – that is, the newly formed company won’t be considered a foreign company, and won’t get tax benefits – if the shareholders from the U.S. side of the inversion own 80 percent or more of the newly formed company’s shares going forward.

“Walgreens would’ve had to renegotiate the deal with Boots in order to make sure that Boots’s shareholders ended up with at least 20 percent of the combined merged entity’s stock and that would’ve been difficult to accomplish,” says Dick Harvey, distinguished professor of practice at Villanova School of Law and Graduate Tax Program.

Walgreens is also different from many other companies in that people know it well, and its brand has accumulated significant consumer good will.

“This is a 100-year-old pharmacy in the United States, with a very long and storied legacy and it’s something the consumer is familiar with,” says Ross Muken, senior managing director and partner at ISI Group. “If [pharmaceutical and medical device companies] AbbVie or Covidien leave the United States, no one knows those brands as a consumer. But most people will know Walgreens.”

Consumers could be turned off if the Walgreens they knew skipped town for tax reasons. If consumers didn’t make the connection, an aggressive ad campaign by a competitor could easily help convince them.

There are about eight corporate inversions pending, Harvey says, but he estimates there could be 50 to 100 more in the next year or two. Politicians and government officials are already taking aim at corporate inverters.

“My attitude is, I don’t care if it’s legal, it’s wrong,” President Barack Obama told an audience at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in a speech July 24. “I propose closing this unpatriotic tax loophole for good."

Uncle Sam is a customer Walgreens would rather not antagonize — it gets between a quarter and a third of its business from the government through Medicare and Medicaid, says Muken. But most companies considering an inversion don’t have these concerns.

While many businesses wait for comprehensive tax reform, which may or may not materialize, the treasury department announced it would try to close some inversion loop holes on its own. Harvey says this is unlikely to deter many firms.

“There are two or three main benefits from an inversion – and treasury might be able to address one or two of them but there will be other benefits, that could result in businesses inverting even if treasury takes action," Harvey says.

Those benefits include gaining access to assets held abroad, and stripping out earnings from the United States. 

For most firms considering an inversion, he says, those temptations are too good to resist.

Can a rebuilt Gaza build an economy?

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:37

Wednesday is day two of a three-day ceasefire between the Israeli Army and Palestinian fighters in Gaza. In Egypt, indirect talks have proceeded between Israeli and Palestinian officials, aimed at extending the ceasefire and opening up Gaza's borders to trade and people.

Israel has largely sealed the borders it shares with Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took over. Recently, the military-led government in Egypt severely restricted its border with Gaza, shutting down the smuggling of goods, people and weapons through a large network of tunnels there.

As the ceasefire began on Tuesday, Palestinian deputy economy minister Taysir Amro estimated the direct damage from Israeli bombing and ground incursions at $4 billion to $6 billion. At least 10,000 homes and 140 schools are believed to be destroyed or damaged; Gaza’s power plant is heavily damaged, as is water treatment and other public infrastructure. Norway is reportedly organizing an international donor’s conference in September to begin the process of raising funds to restore services and rebuild.

“Even if you bring in $5 billion, $6 billion, $8 billion or $9 billion, all that will do is replace what they had, put them where they were,” said Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and author of “The World Through Arab Eyes.”

“We know that where they were was an awful place," he says. "Some people were calling it an ‘open prison.’”

"There's no economy in Gaza"

Since 2007, when Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after winning an election there, Israel has kept all but a trickle of humanitarian supplies and people from crossing the border. Except for what has been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, virtually no building supplies are allowed in by Israel for Gazans to use — Israel says these could be used for military purposes. And virtually no produce or furniture or other goods go out to sell in the West Bank, Israel, or farther afield.

“There’s no economy in Gaza — you can’t export from the Gaza strip,” said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who has served as an adviser to Palestinian negotiators in Ramallah.

Elgindy says there is little in the way of industry, agriculture or services in Gaza that could bring capital into the economy. So most development — in fact most consumption — comes from international aid, which 70 percent of residents receive. The unemployment rate is at least 40 percent, according to the World Bank. GDP has been falling in recent years.

Gaza’s "real" GDP growth, according to World Bank. (Source: World Bank)

What would have to happen to get economic development going in Gaza? The experts interviewed for this story said the first prerequisite is more open borders — for supplies coming in, goods for export going out and people (foreign visitors, expatriate family members and workers) going in both directions.

Second, they said Palestinians need more control of key infrastructure and economic relationships with immediate neighbors and potential trading partners.

“It would make a huge difference, in terms of normalizing Gaza, to have a seaport,” said Elgindy. The airport should also be rebuilt and opened to international flights, he said.

Telhami said if Palestinians controlled their own seacoast and airspace, and could clean up the beaches: “Gaza does have a waterfront. In good times, if they ever come, it could be turned into a relatively inexpensive vacation spot.”

Fishing has been severely limited by Israel, which controls the waters off the coast; Telhami said that industry could expand as well, supplying fish to the West Bank.

Leila Hilal, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said Gaza has human capital that could drive economic development.

“Gazans are very enterprising, they’ve been surviving under total isolation,” said Hilal, adding that the population of Gaza is young, educated and urban. She said the Palestinian diaspora could potentially help — providing expertise, export markets and investment dollars.

But, she said, a political opening in the peace process with Israel, and significant progress in opening borders and normalizing the ability of Gazans to travel and trade freely, would have to come first.

It's all monkey business for Wikimedia

Wed, 2014-08-06 13:35

Remember that picture that was floating around the internet a while ago?

The one a monkey had taken of herself using a camera it had liberated from a British wildlife photographer. It was basically a monkey-selfie.

Anyway, The Telegraph reported today that Wikipedia has declined the photographer's requests to stop distributing the picture without his permission because the site says the monkey pushed the shutter button and so it owns the copyright.

The NCAA's top conferences break out

Wed, 2014-08-06 10:13

A new proposal that grants the country’s top college athletics programs more money for their athletes and loosens NCAA restrictions is expected to be approved Thursday.

"The move comes amid vigorous public debate about the proper role of sports in higher education, and whether college athletes should be compensated for the billions of dollars they help generate," says Marc Tracy, college sports reporter for The New York Times.

This proposal will make the Big 5 conferences' first-class status official, but it might not be good news for the smaller programs. Non-Big 5 athletic programs could possibly lose their funding or be shut down.

"If you’re a non-Big 5 school that nonetheless feels it needs to compete with Big 5 schools and offer more to students, say in football, then you might need to cut costs elsewhere," says Tracy. "Will that actually be something that happens? I don’t know, but it’s certainly possible."

Yelp's CEO on the end of the professional critic

Wed, 2014-08-06 09:43

Ten years ago PayPal alums Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons had an idea for a website that would allow users to review restaurants and other local businesses. The pair took $1 million in seed capital and turned it into Yelp.

“If you think about the world prior to Yelp, it was the world of the professional critic,” says Stoppelman. “And so that meant lots of businesses didn’t get any exposure at all and the ones that did had kind of a one-shot deal.”

Simmons has since left the company but Stoppelman remains CEO 10 years on. This year is significant for another reason too – in the last quarter, Yelp posted a profit for the first time.

Though it’s free for users to post reviews, Yelp makes money by selling advertisements to small businesses. That concept brought Google knocking in 2009 with an offer to buy the company. Stoppelman remembers the day Steve Jobs called, urging him not to sell. "Fortunately, we chose the independent path,"  Stoppelman says, "and I think the company is much more successful as a result."

As for how he and Simmons came up with the name for their now-ubiquitous company, they credit their early days at a business incubator.

“There was a guy we were working with, David, and he just came up with the name. He said it was like Help/Yelp or Yelp/Yellow Pages,"  Stoppelman says. "And both my and Russ’s initial response was 'Oh, that’s kind of a negative word.' But we slept on it and the next day, it was kind of history."

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that the call from Steve Jobs to Jeremy Stoppelman was about selling. It was urging him not to sell. The text has been corrected.

Yelp CEO on the end of the professional critic

Wed, 2014-08-06 09:43

Ten years ago PayPal alums Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons had an idea for a website that would allow users to review restaurants and other local businesses. The pair took $1 million in seed capital and turned it into Yelp.

“If you think about the world prior to Yelp, it was the world of the professional critic,” says Stoppelman. “And so that meant lots of businesses didn’t get any exposure at all and the ones that did had kind of a one-shot deal.”

Simmons has since left the company but Stoppelman remains CEO ten years on. This year is significant for another reason too – in the last quarter, Yelp posted a profit for the first time.

Though it’s free for users to post reviews, Yelp makes money by selling advertisements to small businesses. That concept brought Google knocking in 2009 with an offer to buy the company. Stoppelman remembers the day Steve Jobs called, urging him to sell. "Fortunately, we chose the independent path"  Stoppelman says, "and I think the company is much more successful as a result."

As for how he and Simmons came up with the name for their now-ubiquitous company, they credit their early days at a business incubator.

“There was a guy we were working with, David, and he just came up with the name. He said it was like Help/Yelp or Yelp/Yellow Pages,"  Stoppelman says. "And both my and Russ’s initial response was 'Oh, that’s kind of a negative word.' But we slept on it and the next day, it was kind of history."

Meet the woman behind Ikea's living wage calculator

Wed, 2014-08-06 06:48

Scandinavian furniture store Ikea recently announced it will adopt a new, higher wage structure at its U.S. stores in 2015. The company says its average hourly minimum wage in will go up to $10.76, an increase of 17 percent. That's big news, but there was a footnote to that announcement that's worth pausing on.

In this new wage structure, Ikea's lowest wages will be based on something called the MIT Living Wage Calculator. How did one MIT professor's research project become a tool that will affect the wages of thousands of American workers?

The story begins with Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at MIT. Glasmeier is the kind of person who, when she goes on a trip somewhere, is less likely to head to the tourist attractions and more likely to drive to a grocery store where she can squint at price tags to figure out what it costs to live there. Checking out local listings for apartments is also a favorite pastime.

These travel hobbies of hers have to do with one question: Why do certain places have such high poverty rates when others do not?

In her travels and her research, Glasmeier has found that places with higher poverty are often ones where lots of the available jobs pay minimum wage, a wage that she says "absolutely was not paying people enough to live on."

How the Living Wage Calculator works

So what would be enough to live on? That would of course depend on where someone lived, and how much that place costs. And so Glasmeier rounded up some of her best graduate students to create, basically, a giant spreadsheet. They loaded it up with the best regional data available, from government and industry surveys, on costs for housing, food, child care, medical expenses, and transportation. (Plus a category called "other," which includes a modest budget for things like clothes, cleaning supplies and toiletries.)

The spreadsheet adds all these costs up, divides by the number of hours a person typically works in a year, and spits out the hourly rate that, according to all these calculations, an individual must earn to support him or herself (and a family—the wages are adjusted by household size), working full-time.

The "living wages" the calculator produces are not "middle class" wages, cautions Glasmeier. They wouldn't cover a trip to Hawaii once a year or saving for retirement. The living wage is, as she defines it, just enough to pay bills for the necessities of life and not fall behind.

No longer an obscure tool

Since Glasmeier created her calculator, it has had its fans, from policy wonks to unions to the occasional small-business owner. But it was still a relatively obscure tool until one day a few weeks ago, when Glasmeier got a phone call from a reporter, informing her that Ikea was planning to use it to set its own internal minimum wage.

"We truly do see this as the right thing to do for taking care of our co-workers," says Rob Olson, the acting president for Ikea U.S. "An opportunity to increase coworker loyalty, decrease turnover, as well as being able to attract more and more qualified applicants."

Olson says it would be too complicated to pay people different wages based on household size, so Ikea's going to stick with what the Living Wage Calculator comes up with for a single person with no children. (In other words, the lowest wage the calculator offers). Still, starting in January, the minimum hourly pay for an Ikea worker in an expensive suburb of Washington, D.C. will be $13.22 an hour. Over in Pittsburgh, where cost of living is much lower, Ikea's minimum hourly rate will be lower too — $8.29 an hour. But even that is still a dollar more than the federal minimum wage.

Olson says Ikea found out about the MIT Living Wage Calculator through consultants and he didn't know much about who was behind the actual tool.

That's just fine with Glasmeier. With all the political debates over where to set the minimum wage right now, she thinks the anonymity of the tool in some funny way actually makes people feel better.

"As if it was just an MIT robot, somewhere in a closet, crunching the numbers on a daily basis," she says.

Of course, The MIT Living Wage Calculator is not a number-crunching robot in a closet. But you can see why the objectivity the name suggests could make it more attractive to businesses large and small.

Not long ago the calculator caught the attention of Artillery Riewaldt, who owns two Jimmy John's sandwich shops in rural Illinois. Riewaldt says he used to pay all his employees minimum wage. Then, one day, a few years ago, a worker mentioned he was looking for a second job because he couldn't make ends meet.

"It's very difficult knowing that you have a good living for yourself, working right next to someone every day who's trying very hard and helping you grow that business, and knowing that they can't survive the bumps that come up in life," he says. "An employer always needs to make the decision: how much is too much for me at the expense of them?"

Riewaldt says when he found the Living Wage Calculator one night doing research on Google, it felt like a relief. "It's as far as I can tell political-free — it is actual data trying to decide what is that line that has to be met in order to live and be OK."

As politics-free and data-driven as the calculator may be, it is still made by humans, who have to choose the data and update it. On a professor's research budget that can only happen so often, says Glasmeier. Her calculator is currently based on data from 2010, inflated to 2012. Meaning it doesn't reflect more recent rises in cost of living.

In fact, after Ikea announced it was going to be using the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Professor Glasmeier emailed the company.

First, she thanked Ikea for raising wages. "But then I also told them that we were going to have an update," she says. "And the update was going to have a wage that was going to be higher than the one they were using."

She says the update will be published in September.

For now, Ikea says it will stick with the older, lower calculations, but that it will reevaluate annually.

PODCAST: Colleges going green

Wed, 2014-08-06 03:00

First up, more on Walgreens' decision not to move its headquarters overseas. It will, however, go through with a purchase of European pharmacy Alliance Boots. Plus, two large merges have fallen apart; Rupert Murdoch has abandoned his bid to purchase Time Warner, and Sprint lets go of its merger with T-Mobile. Also, what if colleges and universities could grow, rather than subtract, from their endowment money by making their campuses more environmentally friendly? The Sustainable Endowments Institute is trying to help them do just that.

How to grow green energy along with endowments

Wed, 2014-08-06 03:00

Amid all the Sturm und Drang of mergers and markets, we like to track compelling ideas on Marketplace.

How about if colleges and universities could grow, rather than subtract, from their endowment money by making their campuses more environmentally friendly? 

Mark Orlowski is founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute. He has an online system to help schools track ways that they can get financial returns, not just through stock and bond markets, but through energy efficiency.

His project, the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, and online platform (GRITS) help universities take their operating cash or endowment, upgrade the energy efficiency of campus buildings, and get a bigger return in savings than the stock market would earn them.

The Green Revolving Investment Tracking System (GRITS 1.0) is designed to manage every aspect of an institution's green revolving fund (GRF), including aggregate and project-specific financial, energy, and carbon data. It also helps track and manage projects, as well as reports on environmental benefits and financial return.

How's that for compelling?

How to grown green energy along with endowments

Wed, 2014-08-06 03:00

Amid all the Sturm und Drang of mergers and markets, we like to track compelling ideas on Marketplace.

How about if colleges and universities could grow, rather than subtract, from their endowment money by making their campuses more environmentally friendly? 

Mark Orlowski is founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute. He has an online system to help schools track ways that they can get financial returns, not just through stock and bond markets, but through energy efficiency.

His project, the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, and online platform (GRITS) help universities take their operating cash or endowment, upgrade the energy efficiency of campus buildings, and get a bigger return in savings than the stock market would earn them.

The Green Revolving Investment Tracking System (GRITS 1.0) is designed to manage every aspect of an institution's green revolving fund (GRF), including aggregate and project-specific financial, energy, and carbon data. It also helps track and manage projects, as well as reports on environmental benefits and financial return.

How's that for compelling?

Google's email filtering in the spotlight

Wed, 2014-08-06 02:00

A technology called PhotoDNA -- developed by Microsoft and used by Google along with other online companies -- is being credited with leading to the arrest of a man accused of distributing child pornographic images through Gmail.

Google’s CEO has previously come out in favor of a more aggressive approach to the issue, as has the company’s chief legal officer

Google has argued that they were largely complying with the law in notifying police. According to Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, the company's actions are consistent with the legal understanding.

“They are to report images of child sexual abuse, and they have done so,” he says.

What makes this particular case different from finding evidence of other criminal activity in an email, according to Balkam, is that Google does not scan for illegal content in such a way as to detect things like planned robberies.

But even with these efforts tackling email attachments, there are other methods of disseminating this material, so action by search engines isn’t the end of the story.

Android now tops Apple in web traffic, too

Wed, 2014-08-06 02:00

The operating system Android scored a point recently in its ongoing war with Apple. According to the latest data - for the first time ever - the web traffic generated from Android smartphones and tablets was greater than that of Apple’s mobile devices

The news wasn't entirely a surprise. For some time now, sales of Android smartphones and tablets worldwide have been beating Apple. But Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has waved off any concern by saying Apple dominates when it comes to online traffic. Then he’d ask, where are all those Androids anyway?

"They must be in warehouses, or on store shelves, or maybe in somebody's bottom drawer," Cook would quip. 

Cook will have to retire that joke with the news that Android now beats Apple’s mobile devices in web traffic. Tuong Nguyen is an analyst at Gartner and he doesn’t think Apple users will just switch to Android.

"When you talk about the iOS crowd, they tend to be a more self-selecting crowd," he said. "Users who have more income or are more engaged with their technology and devices."

Pai-Ling Yin is the co-founder of the Mobile Innovation Group at Stanford. She says the real turning point will be when greater Android web use turns into more money.

"Just because they’re using it more doesn’t mean you can get them to pay you more," says Yin.

She says Apple users still buy more apps and goods online and so, from a business perspective, can be seen as more valuable.

Keeping student data safe from the marketing machine

Wed, 2014-08-06 02:00

In New Hampshire, the state collects the basics about kids; name, race, gender. It also tracks how many days they were suspended from school, and whether or not they are homeless.

But, under its new law, the state is prohibited from collecting information about a kid’s Body Mass Index. It also can’t keep a record about whether she’s pregnant, and it can’t gather kids' email addresses.

And that’s just a small part of what the state’s law covers.

"States have taken a huge step forward in the last two years in really strengthening their capacity to safeguard data," said Aimee Guidera, head of the Data Quality Campaign,  a non-profit  that is tracking student data laws.

There are already federal laws in place to help protect student records.

But, as technology advances and students do more work on computers, a lot of states want more.

Idaho, for example, rules out certain biometric data; the kind that are collected by analyzing brain waves and heart rate.

New York calls for a parents bill of rights for data privacy and security.

Kentucky has made it illegal for student data to be used to target ads to kids.

So far, more than 20 states have passed laws. And that’s just the beginning.

 
 States with new student-data laws
 (click state for details)
 Colorado 
 Florida
 Idaho
 Kentucky  
 Louisiana
 Maine
 Maryland 
 Missouri 
 New Hampshire
 New York        North Carolina 
       Ohio
       Oklahoma
       Rhode Island
       South Carolina
       South Dakota
       Tennessee
       Virginia
       West Virginia
       Wyoming

"Our sense is that we’re going to see a growth in the number of pieces of legislation introduced next year," said Guidera.

A lot of this legislation is being driven by fear, particularly among parents. They worry about what data is being collected and by whom. They want to know how it's being used and whether it is safe. 

The rash of new laws and the push by states to pass more is also creating fear among educational technology companies.

"Some of the requirements provide real practical challenges to their ability to serve their customers," said Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director of Education Policy at the Software & Information Industry Association.  

In other words, the privacy push is making it harder for companies who want to get their apps into classrooms across the country, he said.  It also makes it harder to for them to cash in on the multi-billion dollar market for educational technology.

"We’ve heard it from developers who are now shying away a little bit from the education sector," said Schneiderman.

In tech-centric California, state legislators have been trying to find a way to keep everybody happy.

"We think we’ve found the sweet spot here," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. He's proposed a law that’ll let app developers use student data to improve their products, but not to market to students.

"We’re not trying to stifle this technology," he said. "To the contrary, we want more apps to help more kids."

 But, said Steinberg, there are too many weak privacy polices right now, and there's too much free rein for companies collecting data about kids.

 

The Ukrainian rebel who started as a sci-fi writer

Tue, 2014-08-05 13:51

Fedor Berezin doesn’t look like a warlord. He seems out of place among the beefy, thuggish rebels of eastern Ukraine, but he's their second-in-command.

“He really does look like the stereotypical sci-fi nerd. He’s this guy in glasses and he’s very soft spoken,” says Russian-born commentater Cathy Young. “Berezin is a sci-fi writer. So we have this really fascinating phenomenon of a sci-fi writer playing real war games.”

What makes Berezin’s presence among the violent, pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine even more extraordinary is that he wrote about the conflict four or five years before it happened. And apart from the plasma guns , the exoskeleton suits and the mechanized monsters, Berezin’s lurid sci-fi version of the war has proved prophetic.

“He wrote about eastern Ukraine becoming a battleground between East and West in a way that is eerily similar to what’s going on today,” says Young, who was the first western-based writer to spot a curious literary trend.

Over the past decade there has been a string of Russian and Ukrainian futuristic thrillers harping on a similar theme: noble Russians staunchly resisting the evil encroachment of the West.

Some pro-western Ukrainian politicians have even argued that the Kremlin may be behind this literary outpouring, encouraging a flood of books that make the idea of a war against western Ukraine acceptable.

Sounds far fetched? Oxford University lecturer James Sherr – one of the UK’s leading authorities on Ukraine - says there could be something in this claim.

“This about getting your people and others to adopt a certain narrative. The Russians are past masters at it.” says Sherr. “What people of Putin’s background - security and intelligence – understand is that to achieve your aims in war or peace, you have link all the different dimensions of activity into one narrative.”

Western science fiction buffs are not entirely surprised either, at both the alleged use of sci- fi as a political tool and at the genre’s predictive power. Author and critic Graham Sleight points out that in the past,  sci-fi has foreshadowed a number of military innovations and developments.

“In 1903, HG Wells published a story called 'The Land Ironclads', which anticipated the armoured tanks first used in WW1 a decade or more later,” says Sleight. “And one of the founding fathers of American science fiction, Robert Heinlein, wrote a couple of stories in 1940, not only anticipating a world with nuclear weapons but also a nuclear arms race.”

And we would perhaps be wise to note: Berezin has also written a series of novels in which the United States and Russia go to war…. over possession of the Moon.

U.S. companies pledge $14 billion in Africa investment

Tue, 2014-08-05 13:50

The Obama Administration wants to strengthen American business investment in Africa. Today, U.S. companies pledged some $14 billion in new business investment. That was in addition to commitments from the U.S. government, the World Bank and other private groups.

The major push in this bid? Power (the electric kind). After all, six of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. But Ben Leo, a senior fellow with the Center for Global Development, says 600 million people in Africa lack any electricity. That’s a market opportunity, but it’s also a headwind for economic and business growth.

“That’s why every single African leader has affordable electricity at the top of their political and economic agenda,” he says.

That’s also why the private equity firm Blackstone just announced it has teamed up with African billionaire Aliko Dangote to invest $5 billion in energy infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Carlyle Group is also getting involved in energy infrastructure.

Aubrey Hruby, a visiting fellow at The Atlantic Council, says other business obstacles remain. Say you want to open a KFC.

“It doesn’t take a genius to know they want to do business in Nigeria or in Lagos,” a huge city will millions of people, she says. The problem is finding good business data.

“The question is on what block? On what corner? And how do you decide that based on traffic patterns, available disposable income, those kind of metrics?” she asks.

Still, Witney Schneidman, senior international advisor for Africa with Covington & Burling LLP, says U.S. businesses have already invested about $31 billion in Africa. Trade goes both ways, he says.

You can walk into a range of clothing stores in the U.S., like “Lands’ End, Old Navy, and you’ll see shirts that say ‘Made in Lesotho.’ You’ll see pants that say ‘Made in Mauritius.’ You’ll see t-shirts that say ‘Made in Kenya,’” he says.

The evidence? Wal-Mart is doing business in Africa. Procter & Gamble is making diapers there. Even China is looking to Africa for cheaper labor.

Justice dept. targets GM in subprime auto loan probe

Tue, 2014-08-05 13:50

GM Financial, the unit of General Motors in charge of auto financing, has received a subpoena in a federal investigation of subprime car loans.   

The company disclosed the request in a recent regulatory filing. GM said it’s complying and that it believes the request is focused on the subprime auto-finance industry in general, not GM in particular.

While some of these auto loans can look similar to the subprime mortgages that led to the financial crisis, the scale is different, says Lawrence White, an economics professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.

“The magnitudes are nowhere near in subprime auto what they were in subprime mortgage lending,” he says. “So it’s highly unlikely that there will be any significant macro-economic consequences."

But that doesn’t mean lenders and investors won’t feel some pain if the loans go wrong, White says. The set of borrowers who were impacted most by the mortgage crisis are the ones at risk again, says Chris Kukla, senior vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending.

“It’s also the same practices,” he says. “Loans that were being made at higher interest rates, generally to people who had lower credit scores [with] terms and conditions to them that just made them unaffordable.”

Just like a foreclosure, having a car repossessed can devastate a household.

“Access to an automobile is extraordinarily critical to low-income families and working families," says Stuart Rossman, director of litigation at the National Consumer Law Center. “They are reliant on it for their job, they’re reliant upon it for their education.”

 Take away access to a car for enough people, he says, and you could have a serious economic problem on your hands.

The filing:

On July 28, 2014, General Motors Financial Company, Inc. (the “Company”) was served with a subpoena by the U.S. Department of Justice directing it to produce certain documents relating to its and its subsidiaries’ and affiliates’ origination and securitization of subprime automobile loan contracts since 2007 in connection with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice in contemplation of a civil proceeding for potential violations of Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989. Among other matters, the subpoena requests information relating to the underwriting criteria used to originate these automobile loan contracts and the representations and warranties relating to those underwriting criteria that were made in connection with the securitization of the automobile loan contracts.

Gannett's print arm will fend for itself

Tue, 2014-08-05 13:48

Media company Gannett announced Tuesday it plans to split in two.

Its newspaper and publishing arm – including USA Today – will split off to become one company, retaining the name Gannett. Its broadcast and digital arm, which has yet to be named, will become its own company. That company also, and not coincidentally, just bought up Cars.com.  

It’s the latest example of a decade-old scramble to figure out what to do with newspapers. 

In some ways, Gannett is spinning off its publishing side, but you could also say it’s ditching it.

“They’re doing it for the simple reason that newspapers are in a downward spiral that’s irreversible,” says Porter Bibb, managing partner at Media Tech Capital Partners.

The idea is that newspapers drag down earnings, stock prices, and even investment from the broadcast and digital side of the company. Those companies could excel, ostensibly without needing to subsidize their ailing brother.

“The latest number showed that while 70 percent of [Gannett’s] revenues were coming from newspapers, already 60 percent of profits were coming from broadcast,” says Ken Doctor, media analyst at Newsonomics.

Even though digital ad spending for newspapers is expected to increase 4.3 percent this year to $3.64 billion, traditional print newspaper ad spending is expected to drop 4 percent to $16.73 billion. That brings the total ad spending down 2.6 percent from last year, according to eMarketer.   

The decline of newspapers is intimately tied to why the broadcast and digital side of Gannett will buy Cars.com. Auto advertising used to be the hand that fed newspapers. Now that hand is feeding someone else. 

“Print media’s lost billions in ad revenue in the last decade, and a large part of that is from auto dealerships who have shifted spending from print classifieds over to digital,” says Mike Hudson, an analyst with eMarketer.

The broadcast and digital side of Gannett followed the money and it's leaving publishing and newspapers behind in what has become a popular strategy.  Time Warner spun out Time Inc. and News Corp split off from 21st Century Fox.

It’s not necessarily leaving print behind to die, just to fend for itself.

“Essentially, the theory goes if you spin off the print piece, the print can have the freedom to focus on the business of print itself,” says Hudson. 

There are often crossovers – relationships between TV and print remain. In Gannett’s case, the print company would very likely continue to provide news services to the broadcast side. 

But to the extent these spinoffs are independent, they are also vulnerable.

“The companies are left as standalone companies, that means they operate now without a safety net,” Doctor says.

So far the print spinoffs aren’t looking great, either. 

“All these publishing companies are still negative on revenue year over year, and for most of them they haven’t grown revenue for seven years really since the recession,” Doctor says. “So we don’t know about the long-term impact of it.”

The broadcast companies appear to be doing better in terms of earnings and stock prices, but that doesn't prove spinning off is a good strategy. Broadcasters have their own battles to fight – think about cable TV and its battles with Aereo and Netflix.

So while the spinoff is a popular move, it’s also a new and unproven one. 

Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace

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