Law and Legal
“How clean is the air you breathe? This second issue of the State of Global Air report expands on last year’s report by adding household air pollution and total air pollution to our discussion of air quality and health for all countries around the globe. It is based on the most recent data available (for 2016) and provides a comprehensive picture of global air pollution and health levels and trends (since 1990). Who is it for? The report is designed to introduce citizens, journalists, policy makers, and scientists to the Global Burden of Disease project, a comprehensive effort to estimate and track human exposure to air pollution and its impact on human health around the world. How can I explore the data? The interactive pages of this website provide the tools to explore, compare, and download data tables and graphics with the latest air pollution levels and the associated burden of disease in individual countries, as well as their trends over the last 26 years (1990–2016).”
The World Bank: “Women, Business and the Law (WBL) measures gender inequality in the law. The dataset identifies barriers to women’s economic participation and encourages the reform of discriminatory laws…In its 5th edition, Women, Business and the Law introduces scoring to better inform the reform agenda. The report tracks progress made over the past two years and identifies opportunities to ensure economic empowerment for all…”
“At the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, we know that solving the mystery of enduring behavior change offers an enormous opportunity to improve lives. We unite an interdisciplinary team of scientists with leading practitioners in education, healthcare, and consumer financial services, all of whom seek to address the question: How can we make behavior change stick?…We are developing an interactive digital platform to improve daily decisions about health, education, and savings. For the first time, a world-class team of scientific experts will be able to continually test and improve a behavior change program by seamlessly incorporating the latest insights from their research into massive random-assignment experiments. Their interactive digital platform seeks to improve daily health, education, and savings decisions of millions…”
Bloomberg: “The richest zip code in America is just as exclusive and elite as the people who live there. Fisher Island, located just off the coast of Miami, is accessible only by ferry or water taxi and is a haven for the world’s richest. The 216-acre island has diverse residents, representing over 50 nationalities and professions ranging from professional athletes and supermodels to executives and lawyers. The average income in Fisher Island, zip code 33109, was $2.5 million in 2015, according to a Bloomberg analysis of 2015 Internal Revenue Service data. That’s $1 million more than the second-place spot, held by zip code 94027 in Silicon Valley, also known as the City of Atherton on the San Francisco Peninsula. The area’s neighbors include Stanford University and Menlo Park, home to Facebook and various tech companies. While the IRS data only provide the averages of tax returns, which can be skewed by outliers, Fisher Island is the only zip code in the Bloomberg analysis where more than half of all tax returns showed an income of over $200,000. To no one’s surprise, neighborhoods in California and the New York tri-state area comprise a majority of the top 20 richest U.S. zip codes. States with favorable tax structures like Florida and Wyoming are drawing the wealthy, too. Bloomberg evaluated IRS data for zip codes with more than 200 tax returns as of the 2015 filing season, and with 500 residential households according to the latest Census tally. More than 22,000 zip codes met the criteria…”
The New York Times: “The embattled political data firm Cambridge Analytica quietly sought to develop its own virtual currency in recent months through a so-called initial coin offering, a novel fund-raising method that has come under growing scrutiny by financial regulators around the world. The offering was part of a broader, but still very private push that the firm was making into the nascent world of cryptocurrencies over the last year. Much like its acquisition of Facebook data to build psychological profiles of voters, the new business line pushed the firm into murky ethical and legal situations. Documents and emails obtained by The New York Times show that Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to help promote another group’s digital token, the Dragon Coin, associated the firm with a famous gangster in Macau who has gone by the nickname Broken Tooth. The goal of Cambridge Analytica’s own coin offering? Raise money that would pay for the creation of a system to help people store and sell their online personal data to advertisers, Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, said in an interview. The idea was to protect information from more or less what the firm did when it obtained the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users…”
“A plurality of experts say digital life will continue to expand people’s boundaries and opportunities in the coming decade and that the world to come will produce more help than harm in people’s lives. Still, nearly a third think that digital life will be mostly harmful to people’s health, mental fitness and happiness. Most say there are solutions.”
“When the Pew Research Center asks American internet users for their bottom-line judgment about the role of digital technology in their own lives, the vast majority feel it is a good thing. Yet, over the past 18 months a drumbeat of concerns about the personal and societal impacts of technology has been growing – and it crescendoed last week in the congressional grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s power and impact on American life. More broadly the concerns are highlighted by headlines about the “Heavy Toll of ‘Always On’ Technology,” the emergence of a “techlash” driven by people’s disillusionment with the online environment, and worries over digital dystopia. There has also been commentary and research about the effects digital technology usage can have on people’s well-being, their level of stress, their likelihood of committing suicide, their ability to perform well at work and in social settings, their capability to focus in an era of information overload, their capacity to modulate their level of connectivity, and their overall happiness. In light of these mounting concerns, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center queried technology experts, scholars and health specialists on this question: Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?…”
Google partnering with 3D laser-scanning nonprofit CyArk to create VR representations of historical sites around the world
The Verge: “Google has partnered with 3D laser scanning nonprofit CyArk to help preserve historical sites around the world that are at risk of irreversible damage or total erasure due to human conflict and natural disasters. The joint effort, called the Open Heritage project, will use CyArk’s laser-scanning technology to capture all the relevant data at a historical site needed to re-create it virtually, so it can be preserved and explored online either on a computer, through a mobile device, or while wearing a virtual reality headset. “With modern technology, we can capture these monuments in fuller detail than ever before, including the color and texture of surfaces alongside the geometry captured by the laser scanners with millimeter precision in 3D,” Chance Coughenour, a digital archaeologist and program manager with the Google Arts and Culture division, said in a press release. “These detailed scans can also be used to identify areas of damage and assist restoration efforts.” Google Arts & Culture, which first went live back in 2011, is the company’s platform for helping preserve and make accessible art from around the world. The division started with a focus on partnering with museums to bring art works online alongside Street View-style walk-throughs of famous museums. It has since expanded its focus to many different types of art and culture, as well as interactive media like VR tours and other educational tools…”
“Today, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched the Virtual Markets Integrity Initiative, a fact-finding inquiry into the policies and practices of platforms used by consumers to trade virtual or “crypto” currencies like bitcoin and ether. As part of a broader effort to protect cryptocurrency investors and consumers, the Attorney General’s office sent letters to thirteen major virtual currency trading platforms requesting key information on their operations, internal controls, and safeguards to protect customer assets. As the letters explain, the Initiative seeks to increase transparency and accountability as it relates to the platforms retail investors rely on to trade virtual currency, and better inform enforcement agencies, investors, and consumers. “With cryptocurrency on the rise, consumers in New York and across the country have a right to transparency and accountability when they invest their money. Yet too often, consumers don’t have the basic facts they need to assess the fairness, integrity, and security of these trading platforms,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “Our Virtual Markets Integrity Initiative sets out to change that, promoting the accountability and transparency in the virtual currency marketplace that investors and consumers deserve.”…”
Government Executive: “Just weeks after the announcement of President Trump’s management agenda, three agency leaders have put together the first roadmap for implementation of the White House’s workforce goals. In a quarterly report released last week, the Office of Personnel Management, the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget described some aspects of the federal civil service system as “a relic of an earlier era that ill-serves federal managers and employees.” The document focuses on three key goals: improving employee performance management and engagement; reskilling and redeploying human capital resources; and enabling simple and strategic hiring practices. Although the report, issued by OPM Director Jeff Pon, Defense Chief Management Officer Jay Gibson, and OMB Associate Director for Performance and Personnel Management Peter Warren, noted that some of the White House’s workforce reform initiatives will require legislative and regulatory action, it outlined a number of short-term goals that can be achieved administratively…” [h/t Pete Weiss]
IRS electronic filing systems working again after agency’s Tax Day technology meltdown – “The Internal Revenue Service’s system for accepting online tax returns is working again after being inoperational for much of the day Tuesday [April 17, 2018]. IRS officials promised that people hampered by the technology failures would not be penalized for late returns, but they have not yet announced any specific exemptions to the deadline. This story will be updated. [ IRS gives taxpayers one more day to file after payment site crashes. ]
- File your taxes on time – there was a short line at the Post Office yesterday! “However, if you owe big-time, you might want to go old-school and print out your return, sign it and get thee to a U.S. post office. Tax returns or extensions must be postmarked by today, April 17, to avoid any penalty for filing late.”
- Politico – IRS fixes key tax filing system after prolonged outage – Millions of returns were in question as the agency scrambled for a fix.
GCN: Algorithmic Impact Assessments: A Practical Framework for Public Agency Accountability, a report by the AI Now Institute, a partnership between New York University, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Partnership on AI. [h/t Pete Weiss]
Why: As public agencies increasingly turn to automated processes and algorithms to make decisions, they need frameworks for accountability that can address inevitable questions – from software bias to the system’s impact on the community. The AI Now Institute’s Algorithmic Impact Assessment gives public agencies a practical way to assess automated decision systems and to ensure public accountability.
Proposal: Just as an environmental impact statement can increase agencies’ sensitivity to environmental values and effectively inform the public of coming changes, an AIA aims to do the same for algorithms before governments put them to use. The process starts with a pre-acquisition review in which an agency, other public officials and the public at large are given a chance to review the proposed technology before the agency enters into any formal agreements. Part of this process would include defining what the agency considers an “automated decision system,” disclosing details about the technology and its use, evaluating the potential for bias and inaccuracy as well as planning for third-party researchers to study the system after it becomes operational…”
The Internet Apologizes…Even those who designed our digital world are aghast at what they created. A breakdown of what went wrong — from the architects who built it. By Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine.
“Something has gone wrong with the internet. Even Mark Zuckerberg knows it. Testifying before Congress, the Facebook CEO ticked off a list of everything his platform has screwed up, from fake news and foreign meddling in the 2016 election to hate speech and data privacy. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility,” he confessed. Then he added the words that everyone was waiting for: “I’m sorry.” There have always been outsiders who criticized the tech industry — even if their concerns have been drowned out by the oohs and aahs of consumers, investors, and journalists. But today, the most dire warnings are coming from the heart of Silicon Valley itself. The man who oversaw the creation of the original iPhone believes the device he helped build is too addictive. The inventor of the World Wide Web fears his creation is being “weaponized.” Even Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, has blasted social media as a dangerous form of psychological manipulation. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he lamented recently. To understand what went wrong — how the Silicon Valley dream of building a networked utopia turned into a globalized strip-mall casino overrun by pop-up ads and cyberbullies and Vladimir Putin — we spoke to more than a dozen architects of our digital present. If the tech industry likes to assume the trappings of a religion, complete with a quasi-messianic story of progress, the Church of Tech is now giving rise to a new sect of apostates, feverishly confessing their own sins. And the internet’s original sin, as these programmers and investors and CEOs make clear, was its business model…”
“Gmail on the web is getting a big update in the coming weeks with a new design and features, but Google is also introducing a new Confidential Mode. The Verge revealed the new design earlier this week, alongside features like quick reply to emails, the ability to snooze emails until later, and a new sidebar to place calendar appointments side by side with messages. We’ve now learned Google will also introduce “Confidential Mode,” which lets Gmail users stop recipients from forwarding certain emails, or restricts the ability to copy, download, or print them. Google will also let Gmail users require a passcode to open emails, which will be generated via SMS, or set an expiration date on sent emails. The features are very similar to some found in Microsoft’s full Outlook application, and Microsoft is also adding the ability to restrict emails on its Outlook.com service. These features will largely appeal to businesses that want more control over how emails are used by recipients, but they won’t stop people from taking a screenshot or a photo of an email…”
EFF: “We filed an amicus brief in a federal appellate case called United States v. Ackerman Friday, arguing something most of us already thought was a given—that the Fourth Amendment protects the contents of your emails from warrantless government searches. Email and other electronic communications can contain highly personal, intimate details of our lives. As one court noted, through emails, “[l]overs exchange sweet nothings, and businessmen swap ambitious plans, all with the click of a mouse button.” In an age where almost all of us now communicate via email, text, or some other messaging service, electronic communications are, in effect, no different from letters, which the Supreme Court held were protected by the Fourth Amendment way back in 1878. Most of us thought this was pretty uncontroversial, especially since another federal appellate court held as much in a 2010 case called United States v. Warshak. However, in Ackerman, the district court added a new wrinkle. It held the Fourth Amendment no longer applies once an email user violates a provider’s terms of service and the provider shuts down the user’s account…”
The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Innovation, Iain M. Cockburn, Rebecca Henderson, Scott Stern, NBER Working Paper No. 24449. Issued in March 2018.
“Artificial intelligence may greatly increase the efficiency of the existing economy. But it may have an even larger impact by serving as a new general-purpose “method of invention” that can reshape the nature of the innovation process and the organization of R&D. We distinguish between automation-oriented applications such as robotics and the potential for recent developments in “deep learning” to serve as a general-purpose method of invention, finding strong evidence of a “shift” in the importance of application-oriented learning research since 2009. We suggest that this is likely to lead to a significant substitution away from more routinized labor-intensive research towards research that takes advantage of the interplay between passively generated large datasets and enhanced prediction algorithms. At the same time, the potential commercial rewards from mastering this mode of research are likely to usher in a period of racing, driven by powerful incentives for individual companies to acquire and control critical large datasets and application-specific algorithms. We suggest that policies which encourage transparency and sharing of core datasets across both public and private actors may be critical tools for stimulating research productivity and innovation-oriented competition going forward. [You may purchase this paper on-line in .pdf format from SSRN.com ($5) for electronic delivery. You are eligible for a free download if you are a subscriber, a corporate associate of the NBER, a journalist, an employee of the U.S. federal government with a “.GOV” domain name, or a resident of nearly any developing country or transition economy.]
Why New York City Stopped Building Subways – Nearly 80 years ago, a construction standstill derailed the subway’s progress, leading to its present crisis. This is the story, decade by decade.
“In the first decades of the 20th century, New York City experienced an unprecedented infrastructure boom. Iconic bridges, opulent railway terminals, and much of what was then the world’s largest underground and rapid transit network were constructed in just 20 years. Indeed, that subway system grew from a single line in 1904 to a network hundreds of miles long by the 1920s. It spread rapidly into undeveloped land across upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, bringing a wave of apartment houses alongside. Then it stopped. Since December 16, 1940, New York has not opened another new subway line, aside from a handful of small extensions and connections. Unlike most other great cities, New York’s rapid transit system remains frozen in time: Commuters on their iPhones are standing in stations scarcely changed from nearly 80 years ago. Indeed, in some ways, things have moved backward. The network is actually considerably smaller than it was during the Second World War, and today’s six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms…”
The breakthrough, spurred by the discovery of plastic-eating bugs at a Japanese dump, could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis. “Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles. The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug. The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.” The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process. “What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.” About 1m plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe and, with just 14% recycled, many end up in the oceans where they have polluted even the remotest parts, harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood. “It is incredibly resistant to degradation. Some of those images are horrific,” said McGeehan. “It is one of these wonder materials that has been made a little bit too well.” However, currently even those bottles that are recycled can only be turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets. The new enzyme indicates a way to recycle clear plastic bottles back into clear plastic bottles, which could slash the need to produce new plastic..The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, began by determining the precise structure of the enzyme produced by the Japanese bug. The team used the Diamond Light Source, near Oxford, UK, an intense beam of X-rays that is 10bn times brighter than the sun and can reveal individual atoms…“Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms,” he said. “There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable. [But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction…”
Environmental Working Group: “A new report estimated the sweeping public health benefits that a 15 percent reduction in energy demand would yield in one year. The February report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, or PSR, found that the savings from modestly cutting energy demand in the electric sector, and thus reducing air pollution, would be the equivalent of the annual insurance premiums for nearly 3.6 million families. The health harms from air pollution reviewed in the report include premature deaths, respiratory-related visits to the hospital, heart attacks, lost work days and cases of acute bronchitis. According to the report, this single year reduction in energy demand in the power sector would result in:
- More than six lives saved per day from premature death
- Up to $20 billion in avoided health harms
- Nearly 30,000 fewer asthma episodes
Energy efficiency investments reduce the need to generate electricity from polluting power plants, reducing air emissions and reducing health harms. The ACEEE and PSR estimated the following substantial reductions in lung-damaging air emissions:
- Particulate emissions: more than 20,000 tons, or 11 percent
- Nitrogen oxide emissions: about 192,000 tons, or 18 percent
- Sulfur dioxide emissions: about 276,000 tons, or 23 percent..”
Summary – “Section 710 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, 2017 (section 710) prohibits an agency from obligating an amount in excess of $5,000 to furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee during the period of appointment without prior notification to the appropriations committees of Congress. The statutory language of section 710 requires notification not only for the purchase of furniture and for aesthetic changes, but also for supplying the office with other equipment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated section 710 when it failed to notify the appropriations committees prior to obligating in excess of $5,000 for the installation of a soundproof privacy booth for the office of the Administrator during the period of his appointment. Because EPA used its appropriations in a manner specifically prohibited by law, EPA violated the Antideficiency Act and should report a violation as required by 31 U.S.C. § 1351.”
Full Report – [snipped ] “…EPA obligated $43,238.68 from its FY 2017 Environmental Programs and Management (EPM) appropriation account for the installation of a soundproof privacy booth for the Administrator’s office. EPA did not send advance notice of this obligation to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate. EPA stated that the amounts obligated included $24,570 for “Privacy booth purchase, delivery, and assembly,” $3,470 for “Concrete Floor Leveling,” $3,360.97 for “Drop Ceiling Installation,” $3,350 for “Prep and Wall Painting,” $7,978 for “Removal of CCTV Equipment,” and $509.71 for “Infrastructure Cabling and Wiring.” The contract for the privacy booth itself required that the booth “be assembled by modular components.” According to EPA the area in which the privacy booth is located, a former storage closet in the Administrator’s office, is assigned to the Administrator. EPA provided that its “Security Management Division” requires that a classified telephone must be located in an area where the employee can have private conversations. That is, a classified phone cannot simply be put on an office desk or in a conference room.” According to EPA, the booth “not only enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, but it also enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business…”
Via FAS – Regulatory Reform 10 Years After the Financial Crisis: Systemic Risk Regulation of Non-Bank Financial Institutions. Jay B. Sykes, Legislative Attorney. April 12, 2018.
“When large, interconnected financial institutions become distressed, policymakers have historically faced a choice between (1) a taxpayer-funded bailout, and (2) the destabilization of the financial system—a dilemma that commentators have labeled the “too-
big-to-fail” (TBTF) problem. The 2007-2009 financial crisis highlighted the significance of the TBTF problem. During the crisis, a number of large financial institutions experienced severe distress, and the federal government committed hundreds of billions
of dollars in an effort to rescue the financial system. According to some commentators, the crisis underscored the inadequacy of existing prudential regulation of large financial institutions, and of the bankruptcy system for resolving the failure of such institutions. In response to the crisis, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank) in 2010. Titles I and II of Dodd-Frank are specifically directed at minimizing the systemic risk created by TBTF financial institutions. In order to minimize the risks that large financial institutions will fail, Title I of Dodd-Frank establishes an enhanced prudential regulatory regime for certain large bank holding companies and non-bank financial companies. In order to “resolve” (i.e., reorganize or liquidate) systemically important financial institutions, Title II establishes a new resolution regime available for such institutions outside of the Bankruptcy Code…”