In a 130-page court filing, Kik claims the SEC’s lawsuit “twists” the facts about its online token

CEO Ted Livingston of Kik

Kik Interactive has hit back at the Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit that claims a $100 million token sale was illegal. The company, which owns Kik Messenger, filed a 130-page response today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that the SEC is “twisting” the facts about its token, called Kin, and asking for an early trial date and dismissal of the complaint.

One of the key issues in the case is if Kin was just an in-app token used to buy games, digital products and other services in Kik Messenger, or if it was meant to be an investment opportunity, as the SEC alleges.

Kik’s general counsel Eileen Lyon said in a press statement that “since Kin is not itself a security, the SEC must show that it was sold in a way that violates the securities laws. The SEC had access to over 50,000 documents and took testimony from nearly 20 witnesses prior to filing its Complaint, yet it is unable to make the case that Kik’s token sale violated the securities laws without bending the facts to distort the record.”

The SEC alleges that the token sale, announced in 2017, came at a time when the company had predicted that it would run out of money after Kik Messenger had been losing money for years, and that it then used proceeds from that sale to build an online marketplace for the app.

In the filing, Kik’s legal team denied that charge, claiming that the SEC’s allegations about its financial condition “is solely designed for misdirection, thereby prejudicing Kik and portraying it in a negative light” and that Kik began working on a cryptocurrency-based model after exploring monetization options that would help it compete against larger techc companies.

They added that “Kik’s Board and Executive Team alike believed that Kin was a bold idea that could solve the monetization challenges faced by all developers (not just Kik) in the existing advertising-based economy, by changing the way people buy and sell digital products and services.”

The SEC also alleges that the sale of digital tokens to U.S. investors was illegal because Kik did not register their offer as required by United States law, even though it claims that Kik marketed Kin as an investment opportunity whose value would increase. In its response, Kik denied that it offered or sold securities, or violated federal securities laws.

In the company’s press statement, Kik CEO Ted Livingston said “The SEC tries to paint a picture that the Kin project was an act of desperation rather than the bold move that it was to win the game, and one that Kakao, Line, Telegram and Facebook have all now followed.”

The SEC wants disgraced VC Mike Rothenberg to cough up more than $30 million

Nearly three years ago, TechCrunch reported on suspected fraud committed by Mike Rothenberg, a self-described “millennial venture capitalist” who’d made a name for himself not only by eponymously branding his venture firm but for spending lavishly to woo startup founders, including on Napa Valley wine tours, at luxury boxes at Golden State Warriors games and most famously, hosting an annual “founder field day” at the San Francisco Giants’s baseball stadium that later inspired a scene in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”

The Securities & Exchange Commission had initially reached out to Rothenberg in June of 2016 and by last August, Rothenberg had been formally charged for misappropriating up to $7 million on his investors’ capital. He settled with the agency without making an admission of guilt, and, as part of the settlement, he stepped down from what was left of the firm and agreed to be barred from the brokerage and investment advisory business with a right to reapply after five years.

Now, comes the money part. Following a forensic audit conducted in partnership with the accounting firm Deloitte, the SEC is seeking $18.8 million in disgorgement penalties from Rothenberg, and an additional $9 million civil penalty. The SEC is also asking that Rothenberg be forced to pay pre-judgment interest of $3,663,323.47

How it arrived at that math: according to a new lawsuit filed on Wednesday, the SEC argues that Rothenberg raised a net amount of approximately $45.9 million across six venture funds from at least 200 investors, yet that he took “fees” on their capital that far exceeded what his firm was entitled to during the life of those funds, covering up these “misdeeds” by “modifying accounting entries to make his misappropriation look like investments, entering into undisclosed transactions to paper over diverted money, and shuffling investments from one [f]und to another to conceal prior diversions.”

Ultimately, it says, Deloitte’s examination demonstrated that Rothenberg misappropriated $18.8 million that rightfully belong to Rothenberg Ventures, $3.8 million of which was transferred to Rothenberg personally; $8.8 million of which was used to fund other entities under his control (including a car racing team and a virtual reality studio); and $5.7 of which was used to pay the firm’s expenses “over and above” the management and administrative fees it was entitled to per its management agreements.

We reached out to Rothenberg this morning. He has not yet responded to our request to discuss the development.

It sounds from the filing like he doesn’t have wiggle room to fight it, in any case. According to the SEC’s suit, the “Rothenberg Judgment” agreed upon last summer left monetary relief to be decided by a court’s judgment, one that “provides that Rothenberg accepts the facts alleged in the complaint as true, and does not contest his liability for the violations alleged, for the purposes of this motion and at any hearing on this motion.”

In the meantime, the lawsuit contains interesting nuggets, including an alleged maneuver in which Rothenberg raised $1.3 million to invest in the game engine company Unity but never actually bought shares in the company, instead diverting the capital to other entities. (He eventually paid back $1 million to one investor who repeatedly asked for the money back, but not the other $300,000.)

Rothenberg also sold a stake in the stock-trading firm Robinhood for $5.4 million, says the SEC, but rather than funnel any proceeds to investors, he again directed the money elsewhere, including, apparently, to pay for a luxury suite during Golden State Warriors games for which he shelled out $136,000.

In a move that one Rothenberg investor finds particularly galling, the SEC claims that Rothenberg then turned around and rented that box through an online marketplace that enables people to buy and sell suites at various sports and entertainment venues, receiving at least $56,000 from the practice.

Ostensibly to keep up appearances, Rothenberg also gave $30,000 to the Stanford University Athletics Department (he attended Stanford as an undergrad) and spent thousands of dollars on ballet tickets last year and early this year, says the SEC’s filing.

Regardless of what happens next, one small victor in the SEC’s detailed findings is Silicon Valley Bank, a sprawling enterprise that has aggressively courted the tech industry since its 1983 founding. Last year, at the same time that Rothenberg was agreeing to be barred from the industry, he made a continued show of his innocence by filing suit against SVB to “vindicate the interests of its funds and investors,” the firm said in a statement at the time.

The implication was that SVB was at fault for some of Rothenberg’s woes because it had not properly wired money to the correct accounts, but the SEC says that SVB was defrauded, providing Rothenberg a $4 million line of credit after being presented with fabricated documents.

A loser — other than Rothenberg and the many people who now feel cheated by him — is Harvard Business School. The reason: it used Rothenberg Ventures as a case study for students after Rothenberg graduated from the program. As we’ve reported previously, that case study — funded by HBS before any hint of trouble at the firm had surfaced  — was co-authored by two professors who had a “significant financial interest in Rothenberg Ventures,” as stated prominently in a curriculum footnote.

Presumably, those ties gave confidence to at least some of the investors in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who later provided Rothenberg with money to invest on their behalf.

You can read the SEC’s 20-page motion for disgorgement and penalties below, along with the 48-page report assembled by Deloitte’s forensic accounting partner Gerry Fujimoto.

SEC vs. Mike Rothenberg by TechCrunch on Scribd

Forensic report re Mike Rothenberg/Rothenberg Ventures by TechCrunch on Scribd

Additional reporting by TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez.

Above: Rothenberg Ventures during better days.

Google to auction slots on Android default search ‘choice screen’ in Europe next year, rivals cry ‘pay-to-play’ foul

Starting early next year Google will present Android users in Europe with a search engine choice screen when handsets bundle its own search service by default.

In a blog post announcing the latest change to flow from the European Union’s record-breaking $5B antitrust enforcement against Android last year, when the Commission found Google had imposed illegal restrictions on device makers (OEMs) and carriers using its dominant smartphone platform, it says new Android phones will be shown the choice screen once during set-up (or again after any factory reset).

The screen will display a selection of three rival search engines alongside its own.

OEMs will still be able to offer Android devices in Europe that bundle a non-Google search engine by default (though per Google’s reworked licensing terms they have to pay it to do so). In those instances Google said the choice screen will not be displayed.

Google says rival search engines will be selected for display on the default choice screen, per market, via a fixed-price sealed bid annual auction — with any winners (and/or eligible search providers) being displayed in a random order alongside its own.

Search engines that win the auction will secure one of three open slots on the choice screen, with Google’s own search engine always occupying one of the four total slots.

“In each country auction, search providers will state the price that they are willing to pay each time a user selects them from the choice screen in the given country,” it writes. “Each country will have a minimum bid threshold. The three highest bidders that meet or exceed the bid threshold for a given country will appear in the choice screen for that country.”

android choice screen

If there aren’t enough bids to surface three winners per auction then Google says it will randomly select from a pool of eligible search providers which it is also inviting to apply to participate in the choice screen. (Eligibility criteria can be found here.)

“Next year, we’ll introduce a new way for Android users to select a search provider to power a search box on their home screen and as the default in Chrome (if installed),” it writes. “Search providers can apply to be part of the new choice screen, which will appear when someone is setting up a new Android smartphone or tablet in Europe.”

“As always, people can continue to customize and personalize their devices at any time after set up. This includes selecting which apps to download, changing how apps are arranged on the screen, and switching the default search provider in apps like Google Chrome,” it adds.

Google’s blog post makes no mention of whether the choice screen will be pushed to the installed base of Android devices. But a spokeswoman told us the implementation requires technical changes that means it can only be supported on new devices.

Default selections on dominant platform are of course hugely important for gaining or sustaining marketshare. And it’s only since competition authorities dialled up their scrutiny that the company has started to make some shifts in how it bundles its own services in dominant products such as Android and Chrome.

Earlier this year Google quietly added rival pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo as one of the default choices offered by its Chrome browser, for example.

In April it also began rolling out choice screens to both new and existing Android users in Europe — offering a prompt to download additional search apps and browsers.

In the latter case, each screen shows five apps in total, including whatever search and browser is already installed. Apps not already installed are included based on their market popularity and shown in a random order.

android choice app screen.max 1000x1000

French pro-privacy search engine, Qwant, told us that since the rollout of the app service choice screen to Android devices the share of Qwant users using its search engine on mobile has leapt up from around 2% to more than a quarter (26%) of its total userbase.

Qwant co-founder and CEO Eric Léandri said the app choice screen shows that competing against Google on search is possible — but only “thanks to the European Commission” stepping in and forcing the unbundling.

However he raised serious concerns about the sealed bid auction structure that Google has announced for the default search choice — pointing out that many of the bidders for the slots will also be using Google advertising and technology; while the sealed structure of the auction means no-one outside Google will know what prices are being submitted as bids, making it impossible for rivals to know whether the selections Google makes are fair.

Even Google’s own FAQ swings abruptly from claims of the auction it has devised being “a fair and objective method” for determining which search providers get slots, to a flat “no” and “no” on any transparency on bid amounts or the number of providers it deems eligible per market…

Screenshot 2019 08 02 at 16.51.50

“Even if Google is Google some people can choose something else if they have the choice. But now that Google knows it, it wants to stop the process,” Léandri told TechCrunch.

“It is not up to Google to now charge its competitors for its faulty behavior and the amount of the fine, through an auction system that will benefit neither European consumers nor free competition, which should not be distorted by such process,” Qwant added in an emailed press statement. “The proposed bidding process would be open to so-called search engines that derive their results and revenues from Google, thereby creating an unacceptable distortion and a high risk of manipulation, inequity or disloyalty of the auction.”

“The decision of the European Commission must benefit European consumers by ensuring the conditions of a freedom of choice based on the intrinsic merits of each engine and the expectations of citizens, especially regarding the protection of their personal data, and not on their ability to fund Google or to be financed by it,” it also said.

In a further complaint, Léandri said Google is requiring bidders in the choice screen auction to sign an NDA in order to participate — which Qwant argues would throw a legal obstacle in the way of it being able to participate, considering it is a complainant in the EU’s antitrust case (ongoing because Google is appealing).

“Qwant cannot accept that the auction process is subject to a non-disclosure agreement as imposed by Google while its complaint is still pending,” it writes. “Such a confidentiality agreement has no other possible justification than the desire to silence its competitors on the anomalies they would see. This, again, is an unacceptable abuse of its dominant position.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission with questions about Google’s choice screen auction.

DuckDuckGo founder, Gabriel Weinberg, has also been quick to point to flaws in the auction structure — writing on Twitter: “A ‘ballot box’ screen could be an excellent way to increase meaningful consumer choice if designed properly. Unfortunately, Google’s announcement today will not meaningfully deliver consumer choice.

“A pay-to-play auction with only 4 slots means consumers won’t get all the choices they deserve, and Google will profit at the expense of the competition. We encourage regulators to work with directly with Google, us, and others to ensure the best system for consumers.”

UK High Court rejects human rights challenge to bulk snooping powers

Civil liberties campaign group Liberty has lost its latest challenge to controversial U.K. surveillance powers that allow state agencies to intercept and retain data in bulk.

The challenge fixed on the presence of so-called “bulk” powers in the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (IPA): A controversial capability that allows intelligence agencies to legally collect and retain large amounts of data, instead of having to operate via targeted intercepts.

The law even allows for state agents to hack into devices en masse, without per-device grounds for individual suspicion.

Liberty, which was supported in the legal action by the National Union of Journalists, argued that bulk powers are incompatible with European human rights law on the grounds that the IPA contains insufficient safeguards against abuse of these powers.

Two months ago it published examples of what it described as shocking failures by U.K. state agencies — such as not observing the timely destruction of material; and data being discovered to have been copied and stored in “ungoverned spaces” without the necessary controls — which it said showed MI5 had failed to comply with safeguards requirements since the IPA came into effect.

However the judges disagreed that the examples of serious flaws in spy agency MI5’s “handling procedures” — which the documents also show triggering intervention by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner — sum to a conclusion that the Act itself is incompatible with human rights law.

Rejecting the argument in their July 29 ruling, they found that oversight mechanisms the government baked into the legislation (such as the creation of the office of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to conduct independent oversight of spy agencies’ use of the powers) provide sufficient checks on the risk of abuse, dubbing the regime as “a suite of inter-locking safeguards.”

Liberty expressed disappointment with the ruling — and has said it will appeal.

In a statement the group told the BBC: “This disappointing judgment allows the government to continue to spy on every one of us, violating our rights to privacy and free expression.

“We will challenge this judgment in the courts, and keep fighting for a targeted surveillance regime that respects our rights. These bulk surveillance powers allow the state to Hoover up the messages, calls and web history of hordes of ordinary people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.”

This is just one of several challenges brought against the IPA.

A separate challenge to bulk collection was lodged by Liberty, Big Brother Watch and others with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

A hearing took place two years ago and the court subsequently found that the U.K.’s historical regime of bulk interception had violated human rights law. However, it did not rule against bulk surveillance powers in principle — which the U.K. judges note in their judgement, writing that consequently: “There is no requirement for there to be reasonable grounds for suspicion in the case of any individual.”

Earlier this year Liberty et al were granted leave to appeal their case to the ECHR’s highest court. That case is still pending before the Grand Chamber.

Europe’s top court sharpens guidance for sites using leaky social plug-ins

Europe’s top court has made a ruling that could affect scores of websites that embed the Facebook ‘Like’ button and receive visitors from the region.

The ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU states such sites are jointly responsible for the initial data processing — and must either obtain informed consent from site visitors prior to data being transferred to Facebook, or be able to demonstrate a legitimate interest legal basis for processing this data.

The ruling is significant because, as currently seems to be the case, Facebook’s Like buttons transfer personal data automatically, when a webpage loads — without the user even needing to interact with the plug-in — which means if websites are relying on visitors’ ‘consenting’ to their data being shared with Facebook they will likely need to change how the plug-in functions to ensure no data is sent to Facebook prior to visitors being asked if they want their browsing to be tracked by the adtech giant.

The background to the case is a complaint against online clothes retailer, Fashion ID, by a German consumer protection association, Verbraucherzentrale NRW — which took legal action in 2015 seeking an injunction against Fashion ID’s use of the plug-in which it claimed breached European data protection law.

Like ’em or loath ’em, Facebook’s ‘Like’ buttons are an impossible-to-miss component of the mainstream web. Though most Internet users are likely unaware that the social plug-ins are used by Facebook to track what other websites they’re visiting for ad targeting purposes.

Last year the company told the UK parliament that between April 9 and April 16 the button had appeared on 8.4M websites, while its Share button social plug-in appeared on 931K sites. (Facebook also admitted to 2.2M instances of another tracking tool it uses to harvest non-Facebook browsing activity — called a Facebook Pixel — being invisibly embedded on third party websites.)

The Fashion ID case predates the introduction of the EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, which further toughens the rules around obtaining consent — meaning it must be purpose specific, informed and freely given.

Today’s CJEU decision also follows another ruling a year ago, in a case related to Facebook fan pages, when the court took a broad view of privacy responsibilities around platforms — saying both fan page administrators and host platforms could be data controllers. Though it also said joint controllership does not necessarily imply equal responsibility for each party.

In the latest decision the CJEU has sought to draw some limits on the scope of joint responsibility, finding that a website where the Facebook Like button is embedded cannot be considered a data controller for any subsequent processing, i.e. after the data has been transmitted to Facebook Ireland (the data controller for Facebook’s European users).

The joint responsibility specifically covers the collection and transmission of Facebook Like data to Facebook Ireland.

“It seems, at the outset, impossible that Fashion ID determines the purposes and means of those operations,” the court writes in a press release announcing the decision.

“By contrast, Fashion ID can be considered to be a controller jointly with Facebook Ireland in respect of the operations involving the collection and disclosure by transmission to Facebook Ireland of the data at issue, since it can be concluded (subject to the investigations that it is for the Oberlandesgericht Düsseldorf [German regional court] to carry out) that Fashion ID and Facebook Ireland determine jointly the means and purposes of those operations.”

Responding the judgement in a statement attributed to its associate general counsel, Jack Gilbert, Facebook told us:

Website plugins are common and important features of the modern Internet. We welcome the clarity that today’s decision brings to both websites and providers of plugins and similar tools. We are carefully reviewing the court’s decision and will work closely with our partners to ensure they can continue to benefit from our social plugins and other business tools in full compliance with the law.

The company said it may make changes to the Like button to ensure websites that use it are able to comply with Europe’s GDPR.

Though it’s not clear what specific changes these could be, such as — for example — whether Facebook will change the code of its social plug-ins to ensure no data is transferred at the point a page loads. (We’ve asked Facebook and will update this report with any response.)

Facebook also points out that other tech giants, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, deploy similar social plug-ins — suggesting the CJEU ruling will apply to other social platforms, as well as to thousands of websites across the EU where these sorts of plug-ins crop up.

“Sites with the button should make sure that they are sufficiently transparent to site visitors, and must make sure that they have a lawful basis for the transfer of the user’s personal data (e.g. if just the user’s IP address and other data stored on the user’s device by Facebook cookies) to Facebook,” Neil Brown, a telecoms, tech and internet lawyer at U.K. law firm Decoded Legal, told TechCrunch.

“If their lawful basis is consent, then they’ll need to get consent before deploying the button for it to be valid — otherwise, they’ll have done the transfer before the visitor has consented

“If relying on legitimate interests — which might scrape by — then they’ll need to have done a legitimate interests assessment, and kept it on file (against the (admittedly unlikely) day that a regulator asks to see it), and they’ll need to have a mechanism by which a site visitor can object to the transfer.”

“Basically, if organisations are taking on board the recent guidance from the ICO and CNIL on cookie compliance, wrapping in Facebook ‘Like’ and other similar things in with that work would be sensible,” Brown added.

Also commenting on the judgement, Michael Veale, a UK-based researcher in tech and privacy law/policy, said it raises questions about how Facebook will comply with Europe’s data protection framework for any further processing it carries out of the social plug-in data.

“The whole judgement to me leaves open the question ‘on what grounds can Facebook justify further processing of data from their web tracking code?'” he told us. “If they have to provide transparency for this further processing, which would take them out of joint controllership into sole controllership, to whom and when is it provided?

“If they have to demonstrate they would win a legitimate interests test, how will that be affected by the difficulty in delivering that transparency to data subjects?’

“Can Facebook do a backflip and say that for users of their service, their terms of service on their platform justifies the further use of data for which individuals must have separately been made aware of by the website where it was collected?

“The question then quite clearly boils down to non-users, or to users who are effectively non-users to Facebook through effective use of technologies such as Mozilla’s browser tab isolation.”

How far a tracking pixel could be considered a ‘similar device’ to a cookie is another question to consider, he said.

The tracking of non-Facebook users via social plug-ins certainly continues to be a hot-button legal issue for Facebook in Europe — where the company has twice lost in court to Belgium’s privacy watchdog on this issue. (Facebook has continued to appeal.)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also faced questions about tracking non-users last year, from MEPs in the European Parliament — who pressed him on whether Facebook uses data on non-users for any other uses vs the security purpose of “keeping bad content out” that he claimed requires Facebook to track everyone on the mainstream Internet.

MEPs also wanted to know how non-users can stop their data being transferred to Facebook? Zuckerberg gave no answer, likely because there’s currently no way for non-users to stop their data being sucked up by Facebook’s servers — short of staying off the mainstream Internet.

Facebook accused of contradicting itself on claims about platform policy violations

Prepare your best * unsurprised face *: Facebook is being accused of contradicting itself in separate testimonies made on both sides of the Atlantic.

The chair of a UK parliamentary committee which spent the lion’s share of last year investigating online disinformation, going on to grill multiple Facebook execs as part of an enquiry that coincided with a global spotlight being cast on Facebook as a result of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, has penned another letter to the company — this time asking which versions of claims it has made regarding policy-violating access to data by third party apps on its platform are actually true.

In the letter, which is addressed to Facebook global spin chief and former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, Damian Collins cites paragraph 43 of the Washington DC Attorney General’s complaint against the company — which asserts that the company “knew of other third party applications [i.e. in addition to the quiz app used to siphon data off to Cambridge Analytica] that similarly violated its Platform Policy through selling or improperly using consumer data”, and also failed to take “reasonable measures” to enforce its policy.

The Washington, D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, is suing Facebook for failing to protect user data — per allegations filed last December.

Collins’ letter notes Facebook’s denial of the allegations in paragraph 43 — before raising apparently contradictory evidence the company gave the committee last year on multiple occasions, such as the testimony of its CTO Mike Schroepfer, who confirmed it is reviewing whether Palantir improperly used Facebook data, among “lots” of other apps of concern; and testimony by Facebook’s Richard Allen to an international grand committee last November when the VP of EMEA public policy claimed the company has “taken action against a number of applications that failed to meet our policies”.

The letter also cites evidence contained in documents the DCMS committee seized from Six4Three, pertaining to a separate lawsuit against Facebook, which Collins asserts demonstrate “the lax treatment of abusive apps and their developments by Facebook”.

He also writes that these documents show Facebook had special agreements with a number of app developers — that allowed some preinstalled apps to “circumvent users’ privacy settings or platform settings, and to access friends’ information”, as well as noting that Facebook whitelisted some 5,200 apps “according to our evidence”.

“The evidence provided by representatives of Facebook to this Select committee and the International Grand Committee as well as the Six4Three files directly contradict with Facebook’s answer to Paragraph 43 of the complaint filed against Facebook by the Washington, D.C. Attorney General,” he writes.

“If the version of events presented in the answer to the lawsuit is correct, this means the evidence given to this Committee and the International Grand Committee was inaccurate.”

Collins goes on to ask Facebook to “confirm the truthfulness” of the evidence given by its reps last year, and to provide the list of applications removed from its platform in response to policy violations — which, in November, Allan promised to provide the committee with but has so far failed to do so.

We’ve also reached out to Facebook to ask which of the versions of events it’s claimed are true is the one it’s standing by at this time.

UK Facebook users now have a tool to report scam ads

Facebook has launched a tool for UK users to report ads they suspect of being scams.

The feature can be accessed by clicking the three dots in the top right corner of each ad on Facebook, then selecting ‘Report ad’, then ‘Misleading or scam ad’ and finally: ‘Send a detailed scam report’.

So if you want to think of it as a reporting ‘button’ it’s a button that actually requires four presses to function as intended…

Flow of reporting mock up.png.rendition.992.992

Once a scam ad report has been filed, the feature will alert a dedicated internal ops team at Facebook that is tasked with handling reports — so will be reviewing reports and removing violating ads.

The new consumer safety feature follows a defamation lawsuit filed in April last year by consumer advice personality, Martin Lewis, who had become exasperated by the volume of scam ads misappropriating his image on social media to try to trick users into parting with their savings.

Earlier this year Lewis announced he was withdrawing his lawsuit after Facebook agreed to beef up its response to the problem by saying it would add the scam ad reporting feature — which is exclusive to the UK for now — and establish a local team to monitor ad trends for dubious activity.

Facebook also agreed to donate £3M worth of support in cash and Facebook ad credits to UK consumer advice charity, Citizens Advice, to fund the setting up of a Citizens Advice Scams Action (Casa) service — which has also launched today.

This service will provide specialist one-on-one help to those worried they’re being scammed or who have already lost money as a result of fake ads. It will also undertaken scam prevention work, including by raising awareness of online scams in the UK.

Writing in a blog post today on the money saving advice website he founded, Lewis confirms both the Facebook scam ad report tool and Casa have launched — the former some three months tardier than Facebook had suggested at their joint press conference in January.

As regards Casa, UK Internet users who think they have been, or are being, scammed online — either by ads or other methods — can now call the service on 0300 330 3003 for one-on-one help, or access http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scamsaction for more info or a web chat.

Face to face appointments will also be available in England, Wales and Scotland at local Citizens Advice bureaus. Lewis writes that the service is expected to help at least 20,000 people in the first year.

“These initiatives, which are available from today, are crucial, as scam ads can have devastating consequences,” he adds, noting that his own complaints to Facebook vis-a-vis scam ads bearing his image led to more than 1,000 ads being taken down.

“The adverts, placed by criminals, often use fake celebrity images or endorsements to dupe people into investing in fake ‘get rich quick’ schemes, buying diet pills and more.

“They can lead to many people being conned out of their cash – in the case below a man in his 80s lost almost £50,000 – and have a serious impact on people’s mental health and self-esteem.”

We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions, including whether it has plans to extend the scam ads reporting tool to other markets.

In a statement provided to Lewis, Steve Hatch, Facebook’s vice president for northern Europe, said: “Scam ads are an industry-wide problem caused by criminals and have no place on Facebook. Through our work with Martin Lewis, we’re taking a market leading position and our new reporting tool and dedicated team are important steps to stop the misuse of our platform.

“Prevention is also key. Our £3 million donation to Citizens Advice will not only help those who have been impacted by scammers, but raise awareness of how to avoid scams too. At a global level we’ve tripled the size of our safety and security team to 30,000 people and continue to invest heavily in removing bad content from our platform.”

Also commenting in a statement, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, added: “We know online scams affect thousands of people every year. We’re pleased the agreement between Martin Lewis and Facebook meant we could set up this dedicated service to give more help to people who have fallen victim to online scams.

“This project means we can not only support people who have been targeted, but also raise awareness of what to look out for to help prevent online scams happening in the first place. Citizens Advice Scams Action will work alongside the free and impartial help we already offer to anyone who needs advice — whoever they are, whatever their problem.”

While celebrating the launch of Casa, Lewis’ blog post points out that the initial funding “won’t last for ever” — and he calls on other big online ad players to “follow Facebook’s lead, and put their hands in their pockets”.

At the press conference in January Lewis was especially critical of Google for being less responsive to the issue and for not having easy ways for users to report scam ads running on its networks.

We’ve reached out to Google for a response.

In another recent change to its ads platform, Facebook is also now providing users with more information about why they are seeing an ad — if they click through the menu to the option ‘why I am seeing this ad?’.

The company had been criticized for displaying only extremely general targeting criteria — making the feature appear more like a smokescreen than a genuine step towards ad targeting transparency. But last week Facebook said it was now showing “more detailed targeting, including the interests or categories that matched you with a specific ad”.

It also said it will be “clearer where that information came from (e.g. the website you may have visited or Page you may have liked)”. 

Facebook also announced updates to the Ad Preferences menu to provide its users with more information about businesses and third parties that upload lists containing their personal data, such as their email address or phone number, to Facebook to target them with ads — though limiting the data to a 90-day snapshot.

“This section aims to help you understand the third parties and businesses who have uploaded and shared lists with your information,” it wrote of the changes. “In this section, you’ll see the business that initially uploaded a list, along with any advertiser who used that list to serve you an ad within the last 90 days.”

Despite this, Facebook still does not let users deny advertiser uploads of their personal data to Facebook via Facebook itself.

In order to do that a Facebook user would have to contact each and every advertiser individually.

Appeals court rules Amazon can be held liable for third-party products

In a blow to Amazon, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the mega-retailer can be held accountable for fault third-party sales. The ruling arrived this week via the 3rd U.S. City Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, running counter to past lower court ruling that had come out in Amazon’s favor.

If upheld, the ruling could have a big impact on the way company does business. Nearly a half of items sold through the site are handled by third-party sellers. That accounted for around $11 billion in Amazon’s revenue for the previous quarter.

The ruling is in-line with Pennsylvania law — liability for products often varies from state to state. Resident Heather Oberdorf sued the company in Federal court back in 2016 over a retractable dog leash that snapped, breaking her glasses and causing permanent loss of vision In her left eye.

“It’s gratifying that the 3rd Circuit agreed with our argument and recognized that the existing interpretation of product liability law in Pennsylvania was not addressing the reality, the dominance that Amazon has in the marketplace,” said Oberdorf’s lawyer told Reuters.

Amazon has yet to comment on the case, but it seems likely the company will ultimately appeal the ruling. A lower court will rule on whether the leash that caused Oberdorf’s injury was, indeed, defective.

Newly unsealed court documents reveal additional allegations against Andy Rubin

Newly unsealed documents have revealed a spate of bombshell allegations against Android founder, Andy Rubin. BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac has made the documents available as a PDF, and there’s a lot to unpack.

The nearly 40 pages detail a pre-martial agreement made with Rubin’s now-ex-wife, Rie Hirabaru Rubin, three days before their wedding. The documents refer to the agreement as “unconscionable, capping spousal support and stripping Plaintiff of her community property rights under California law without informed consent.”

The Essential Phone and Playground Global founder has largely operated in the background since The New York Times published an explosive story in late-2018 detailing sexual misconduct and massive severance package from his former employer, Google.

The documents go on to allege that her attorney, Stephen Peters, had previously represented Rubin in a prior divorce without her knowledge. This lawsuit seeks to make that prenuptial agreement invalid.

“Plaintiff was not aware of this pre-existing attorney-client relationship or the extent of Peters’ detailed knowledge regarding Rubin’s property and assets which were not fully disclosed at the time,” according to the document, “his detailed knowledge of Rubin’s extravagant payments to women or sex or that Peters was in reality working for the benefit of Rubin, and to the Plaintiff’s detriment.

Allegations of Rubin’s improprieties echo many of the claims reported in the 2018 Times piece, including, “ownership relationships […] whereby Rubin would pay for their expenses in exchange for offering them to other men.”

Over the last several months, Rubin and his ex-wife have been battling in court regarding whether or not the complaint would remain sealed. In April, a California state judge tentatively concluded that small portions of the complaint could be sealed. In May, the plaintiff argued that much of the material in the complaint had already been reported and that there was a notable public interest in the case. For example, Rubin’s alleged payments to women for sex — in the sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars — has already been reported and is relevant to the plaintiff’s case, she argued.

“Rubin hid these payments from Plaintiff during‘their marriage by using his individual bank account and routing payments through his wholly owned company Cosmofion LLC,” the plaintiff states in a court filing. “These allegations show, and the evidence at trial will prove, that Rubin was highly motivated to coerce and defraud Plaintiff to enter into an unconscionable Premarital Agreement so that ‘he would be able to conceal and continue to engage in these illicit sexual activities and continue to make payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to these women without being detected by Plaintiff.”

Regarding the parts of the document that remain under seal, the judge ruled they either involve post-marital allegations and/or information that is covered by a stipulated protective order.

We’ve reached out to Rubin’s lawyers for comment.

EU opens formal antitrust probe of Broadcom and seeks interim order

The European Commission has opened a formal investigation into US chipmaker Broadcom which it suspects of restricting competition via a number of exclusivity practices in markets where it holds a leading position such as for systems-on-a-chip, front-end chips and wifi chipsets.

Earlier this year press reports suggested US authorities are broadening their own antitrust probe of the company.

The FTC opened its investigation into Broadcom back in January 2018.

Commenting in a press release announcing the antitrust action against the chipmaker, the EU’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said: “TV set-top boxes and modems are part of our daily lives, for both work and for leisure. We suspect that Broadcom, a major supplier of components for these devices, has put in place contractual restrictions to exclude its competitors from the market. This would prevent Broadcom’s customers and, ultimately, final consumers from reaping the benefits of choice and innovation. We also intend to order Broadcom to halt its behaviour while our investigation proceeds, to avoid any risk of serious and irreparable harm to competition.

The Commission has issued a formal statement of objections in which it sets out its preliminary conclusions and explains its reasons for seeking interim measures, saying (emphasis its) it believes that:

  • Broadcom is likely to hold a dominant position in various markets for the supply of systems-on-a-chip for TV set-top boxes and modems
  • certain agreements between Broadcom and seven of its main customers manufacturing TV set-top boxes and modems contain exclusivity provisions that may result in those customers purchasing systems-on-a-chip, front-end chips and WiFi chipsets exclusively or almost exclusively from Broadcom
  • the provisions contained in these agreements may affect competition and stifle innovation in these markets, to the detriment of consumers

The formal investigation could take several years to conclude and the Commission notes that the outcome is not prejudiced by preliminary findings nor any interim measures.

“The Commission has gathered information indicating that Broadcom may be implementing a range of exclusionary practices in relation to these products,” it writes. “These practices may include (i) setting exclusive purchasing obligations, (ii) granting rebates or other advantages conditioned on exclusivity or minimum purchase requirements, (iii) product bundling, (iv) abusive IP-related strategies and (v) deliberately degrading interoperability between Broadcom products and other products.

“As a result of concerns relating to these alleged practices by Broadcom, the Commission has decided to open a formal investigation.”

The Commission says it wants to impose interim measures to prevent the suspected anti-competitive behaviour from damaging the market “irreparably” — i.e. before a regulatory intervention could issue a corrective sanction, assuming it ends up deciding such action is necessary after the investigation has run its course.

Its assessment of the case found that the alleged competition concerns to be “of a serious nature and that Broadcom’s conduct may result in the elimination or marginalisation of competitors before the end of proceedings” — allowing it to meet the threshold for ordering interim measures under EU law.

The Commission says it has informed the chipmaker and the competition authorities of EU Member States that it has opened proceedings and of its intention to impose interim measures.

It’s not clear at this stage when such interim measures could be applied — with anything from several weeks to many months being possible.

Broadcom could also seek to appeal against them.

We’ve reached out to the company for comment. 

In recent years the semiconductor supplier has walked away from a proposed hostile takeover of mobile chipmaker Qualcomm after it was blocked by the Trump administration. It went on to shell out $18.9BN in cash to pick up IT management software and solutions provider, CA Technologies — in what looked like a bid to diversify its offerings.