We have written previously about Bitcoin, the new form of “peer-to-peer” currency whose proponents expect to be a game-changer in the world financial markets. It’s not clear yet what Bitcoin’s ultimate destination will be, as the currency has had a lot of scrutiny, and undergone a tremendous amount of volatility, lately.
In a recent 24-hour period, the value of a single Bitcoin on the largest Bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, was high as $266 and as low as $105. It’s hard to sustain a business model with that incredibly high volatility factor.
However, according to TechCrunch, angel investors and venture capitalists remain “hungry to invest in the ecosystem surrounding the decentralized digital currency.” In other words, investors want to create a different, and possibly superior, Bitcoin.
That currency is known as OpenCoin, which wants to create a decentralized global currency yet prefers to stay away from the moniker of “another Bitcoin.” The company behind OpenCoin has raised an undisclosed amount of venture-capital money to expand the open-source code behind Ripple, which is a virtual currency and payment system that aims to make it easy and affordable for anyone to trade any amount in any currency.
OpenCoin hopes to clear its transactions within minutes; to handle dollars, euros, and other currencies seamlessly; and to solve BitCoin’s security issues.
Some observers think OpenCoin has a greater chance of success than Bitcoin because it has been carefully conceived rather than just springing up from the minds of a few hackers, and because it doesn’t have a history of volatility and of facilitating illegal payments.
But it’s still a very long way before any of these artificial currencies catches on. We will be watching them carefully. We hope that financial regulators, both in the United States and world-wide, realize that these currencies can do a great deal of good, and that the Treasury Department doesn’t conclude that they are nothing more than vehicles for money laundering. Treasury’s recent announcement that dealers in Bitcoin-like currencies must obey money-laundering laws seems like an acceptably moderate approach.
Last December, we wrote about the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s issuance of so-called “Wells” notices indicating that the agency was considering whether to bring enforcement proceedings against Netflix and its CEO, Reed Hastings. The SEC’s ire was aroused by a posting by Hastings on his personal Facebook page about Netflix’s success. The agency was concerned about whether such statements in social media complied with disclosure requirements known as “Regulation Fair Disclosure” or “Reg FD.”
In general, Reg FD requires that, when an issuer discloses material, nonpublic information to certain individuals or entities – generally, securities market professionals such as stock analysts or holders of the issuer’s securities who may well trade on the basis of the information – the issuer must make public disclosure of that information. The purpose of these restrictions is to prevent issuer companies from disclosing material information preferentially to certain traders or securities market professionals.
On April 2, 2013, the SEC issued a report that made clear that companies that use social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to announce key information are in compliance with Reg FD so long as investors have been alerted about which social media will be used to disseminate such information. In approving the use of social media (with the stated proviso), the SEC reinforced that Reg FD applies to the use of what it characterized as “emerging means of communication” the same way that it applies to company websites, and referenced the SEC’s 2008 guidance regarding the use of websites.
The SEC’s conclusion should be no surprise. On the one hand, it reinforces the widely recognized and increasing use of social media as a source of information by a growing segment of the population. On the other hand, it serves as a reminder to companies that they need to make sure that all investors know and have access to the channels that the companies use to issue important information.
The likelihood, for now, is that companies will continue to use a variety of means to issue information to the public – including social media, websites and more old-school methods such as press releases. But the acceptance of social media as an appropriate means of disclosure for publicly owned companies is an important step forward in the evolution of social media from a means of friendly banter to an important information channel for businesses and investors alike.
The problematic practice of robosigning – whereby banks and other lenders improperly foreclosed on properties through formulaically processing foreclosure documents – has been much in the news over the past couple of years. The feds have been investigating banks and individuals; state attorneys general have joined forces in pursuit of robosigners; and, unsurprisingly, there have been a number of class actions filed by consumers whose homes were foreclosed.
The fallout of these actions has been somewhat inconsistent. On the settlement side, banks and individuals are facing hefty penalties: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Ally entered into a massive $25 billion settlement with the Justice Department and state attorneys general (of 49 states) in early 2012. The mortgage servicing firm, Lender Processing Services (LPS), recently entered into a $120 million settlement with a coalition of state attorneys general (of 45 states). A founder of one of LPS’s subsidiaries, Lorraine Brown, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges and Missouri state charges and faces not less than two years imprisonment.
Those defendants who have not settled may be faring better. In early March, a Nevada district judge threw out an entire case against two title officers of LPS who faced more than 100 felony counts. (The judge’s ruling was not merits-based but rather based upon prosecutorial misconduct.) A New Jersey federal judge recently dismissed a putative class action against Bank of America, noting the plaintiff’s failure to prove that robosigning constituted fraud.
Part of the challenge for cases that don’t settle out may be proving damages to homeowners who lost their homes: If a home was foreclosed on deadbeats, where are the damages in rapid-fire paper pushing? Some banking experts have found that, between 2009-2012, mortgage servicers created some 800,000 foreclosures that could have been avoided through loan modification programs. And foreclosure practices at BofA and Morgan Stanley subsidiaries were found to have violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which provides active servicemembers financial protection in matters such as civil proceedings, income tax disputes and foreclosures. But these two categories are only a small subset of foreclosures, which have amounted to between one million and four million each year for the last six years.
One lesson from these matters may be that settling is not always the best option. But another take-away that hasn’t come up is how banks and mortgage servicers got into the practice of robosigning in the first place. The issue faced by the banks and lenders was a glut of foreclosures and a related mountain of paperwork to process those foreclosures. How could they effectively address the problem and the dead weight on their ledgers? The answer was to institute an efficient, and automated, process. The problem with automation, though, is a lack of oversight or subjective inquiry – the very purpose behind much of the required foreclosure documents.
While the banks and processors are certainly to blame for false certifications and notarizations, their actions are not as nefarious as many make them out to be. How often are we all guilty of “robosigning” the terms and conditions for a new software program or credit card application? How often do we read all the new disclosures that financial institutions are required to send with each statement or loan request? Part of the problem is that we are faced with a mass of disclosures resulting from both regulation and excess litigation. The information overload is part of what has played out in the robosigning scandal.
The Government Accountability Office just released a report criticizing the Federal Reserve’s review of the robosigning matter, saying that the review itself has become cumbersome and inconsistent. The only problem is that there is no realistic resolution to the problem. Until we can devise a way to be both thorough and totally efficient in processing information, we will inevitably face new versions of the robosigning scandal.
In a recent decision, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District of California struck down the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs) as unconstitutional. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the FBI has been issuing thousands of NSLs every year. The letters demand that recipients, such as banks and telephone companies, provide customers’ information such as their transactional records, phone numbers dialed, and email addresses mailed to and from. This doesn’t involve the content of the phone calls or emails but does involve the names of addressees or participants. One reason most Americans didn’t know about these letters is because more than 95 percent of them contain gag orders, barring the recipient from disclosing their content or even their existence.
This case began nearly two years ago, in May 2011, when a nonprofit advocacy group, the Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF), filed suit on behalf of an unnamed telecom company that had received an NSL. In defense of the NSLs, the government argued that this level of secrecy is necessary to protect the nation against potential security threats. NSLs were designed in the 1970s as a means to gather information on suspected foreign spies during terrorism and espionage investigations. However, the Patriot Act greatly expanded their reach to allow the FBI to secretly compel companies to provide data on American citizens.
The constitutionality of NSLs is dubious for two distinct reasons. Not only does the nondisclosure clause infringe on their recipients’ free speech, but, unlike a standard subpoena or search warrant, the NSLs do not have to be authorized by a judge. Accordingly, Illston concluded that NSLs and their nondisclosure provisions violate the First Amendment and separation of powers principles, and she ordered the FBI to stop issuing NSLs and cease enforcing all gag provisions. That said, we are uncertain whether Illston’s order will ever go into effect. Due to the gravity of the First Amendment and national security issues at stake, Illston issued a 90-day stay, giving the government time to appeal her decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Although the lawsuit was filed anonymously, various media sources have suggested that the unnamed defendant may be Credo Mobile, a phone provider that supports progressive causes. The day after the ruling was released, Credo’s CEO Michael Kieschnick released the following statement:
“This decision is notable for its clarity and depth. From this day forward, the US government’s unconstitutional practice of using national security letters to obtain private information without court oversight and its denial of the first amendment rights of national security letter recipients have finally been stopped by our courts.”
According to Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney, the NSL gags “have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools,” and his unnamed client “looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss the issue.”
As we await the higher court’s ruling, which we hope leaves Illston’s decision in place, one thing has already been accomplished of a positive nature. A federal district judge has shined some light on a little-known and highly dubious federal law enforcement technique.
On March 19, 2013, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE), announced that it has adopted temporary regulations authorizing the state’s casinos to offer fantasy sports tournaments to their patrons. The regulations permit casinos, on their own or in partnership with fantasy sports providers, to offer fantasy sports tournaments or contests.
The temporary regulations will remain in effect for a period of 270 days. During that time, the DGE will propose the regulations for final adoption. The text of the regulations could change from their current form to the form that is eventually adopted. The regulations will become effective on April 22, 2013. The minimum age for participation in fantasy sports tournaments at casinos is 21. Full text of the temporary regulations is available here.
A fantasy sports tournament is a simulated game in which a player manages an imaginary sports team and competes for a monetary prize against teams managed by other players. Since fantasy sports involve considerable skill in the selection of teams and players, they are widely considered not to constitute gambling. Fantasy sports can involve season-long or single-day tournaments.
The New Jersey temporary regulations clearly define that all prizes and awards must be made known to all participants prior to the start of the tournament. The winning outcome of a fantasy sports tournament shall reflect the relative skill of the participants and the outcome cannot be determined solely on the performance of any individual athlete or on the score, point spread, or performance of any single real world team or combination of teams.
The temporary regulations authorize casinos to utilize the casino cage to accept entry fees and pay out winnings from fantasy sports tournaments in the casino. Under the temporary regulations, fantasy sports are not considered to be gambling under state law. Therefore, revenue generated from these games is not subject to the same taxes as revenue generated from table games and other games offered in casinos.
This announcement on fantasy sports is part of a flurry of activity in New Jersey dealing with the state’s gaming industry. Last month, New Jersey became the third state to legalize online gaming within its borders, and games could be online by the end of the year. Earlier this month, a federal judge in New Jersey struck down the state’s sports betting law and the decision has been appealed by the state to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
We are very happy to see New Jersey add fantasy sports offerings in its casinos. This will be a boost for the state as well as for patrons who will soon be able to play these games in casinos.
Timothy Lee at Forbes magazine has reported today that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a branch of the Treasury Department, has issued new guidelines on the legal status of Bitcoin under U.S. money laundering laws. Essentially, Bitcoin dealers have now been placed under the nation’s anti-money laundering regulations and must comply with those rules.
Lee notes that Bitcoin exchanges, which exchange Bitcoins for conventional currencies, and most Bitcoin “miners,” which process Bitcoin transactions, must now register as Money Services Businesses (MSBs) under the Treasury regulations. Ordinary users of Bitcoins need not register.
Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer network that exchanges the virtual currency in a largely unregulated environment. Lately, Bitcoins have become acceptable for a number of types of transactions, and some see them as a currency of the future that transcends national borders.
Lee argues that the Treasury action is actually not a bad thing for Bitcoin’s future.
“FinCEN is clearly trying, in its somewhat bumbling way, to squeeze a square technological peg into its round regulatory hole. Reading between the lines, FinCEN is saying that if Bitcoin-based businesses fill out some paperwork and collect some information about their customers, then they’ll be left alone,” Lee writes.
Given the existence of U.S. anti-money-laundering statutes, Lee adds, “FinCEN’s guidance is probably the best Bitcoin fans could have hoped for: it sends a clear sign that America’s anti-money laundering regulators do not consider the currency a threat and isn’t going to try to force it to change or shut down.”
We tend to agree. There needs to be a balance between enforcing the money-laundering laws (which are designed as a tool against terrorism and other serious wrongdoing) and permitting the free exchange of commodities and currency. It appears that the Administration, so far, is striking the correct balance.
The vast increase in the use of wireless data networks has led to new legal issues regarding network users’ right to privacy. A recent opinion issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon indicates that, under some circumstances, individuals on an unsecured wireless network have a reasonable expectation of privacy entitling them to Fourth Amendment protection. As a result, police officers must obtain a warrant prior to accessing files on that network.
In United States v. Ahrndt, defendant John Henry Ahrndt moved to suppress evidence that a police officer obtained by accessing Ahrndt’s wireless home network and opening files without a search warrant.
In February 2007, one of Ahrndt’s neighbors connected to Ahrndt’s unsecured wireless internet network. When she opened her iTunes program, she was able to see “shared” files from Ahrndt’s iTunes and LimeWire accounts, and saw a number of titles indicative of child pornography.
The neighbor did not open any of the files, but called the police to report what she saw. A deputy came to her house and she showed him the file names as she had seen them. The deputy asked her to open one of the files. When she did, it opened an image of child pornography.
The deputy questioned the neighbor about whom the unsecured wireless network might belong to. She indicated that the network had been available since she moved into the building, and at the time Ahrndt’s home was the only other one that was occupied. The police ran the license plate of a car parked outside of the home and identified it as belonging to Ahrndt, a convicted sex offender.
Using a general description of what the neighbor and deputy recalled seeing in the list of file names, the police applied for and received a search warrant to access the wireless network again in order to get an IP address. The police then served a summons on the Internet provider. The provider disclosed that Ahrndt was the subscriber in question.
Using that information, the police obtained a search warrant for Ahrndt’s home. They ran a forensic search of his computer and identified images of child pornography in various folders. The forensic report did not mention either iTunes or LimeWire.
In considering the motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the initial warrantless search, the court concluded that it would have been appropriate for the deputy to view the titles of the files without a warrant, since a private party (the neighbor) had already viewed those files and told the police about them. However, the court concluded that it was a violation of Ahrndt’s Fourth Amendment rights for the police to instruct the neighbor to open the file, which she had not previously done. The opened image was no longer within the purview of private search, but a government search.
The court also found that Ahrndt’s privacy expectations were not eliminated by accessing an unsecured wireless network. There was no evidence that Ahrndt had intentionally enabled sharing for those files; rather, the default setting of the LimeWire program enabled sharing. It was Ahrndt’s reasonable belief that those files were contained only on his hard drive, and not shared on a public network. The court said that “[i]n short, the government does not dispute a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the files on his home personal computer.”
The court concluded that, lacking specific file names and a description of images, a magistrate would not have found probable cause to issue a search warrant. The only evidence that the police viewed lawfully was the file names, which the neighbor and deputy could not remember with specificity. Since the “partial recollections and characterizations” were too general to support a warrant, all related evidence from the unlawful search must be suppressed.
The court came to the right conclusion on this one. Our reliance on the Internet has become such that what is on our computers is as personal and private as the inside of our homes. The government is no more entitled to search our computer without probable cause than to search our homes. This case does not represent a free pass to intentionally share information on wireless networks and then assert Fourth Amendment rights when the government comes knocking. Rather, it is only that information to which an user has a reasonable expectation of privacy—such as files that he is not aware are accessible to others—that is protected against the government’s unlawful search and seizure.
It’s easy to see how this has implications for potential white-collar cases: the government might try to use financial information unintentionally made available to a neighbor through an unsecured network as a basis to initiate a financial fraud investigation. We hope that the courts will rely on this case and suppress any evidence obtained as a result of this type of unlawful search.
What’s in a name?
When you think of identity theft, you typically think of someone taking a person’s name plus some other identifiers, like their address and Social Security number or credit card number, to go on a spending spree or drain the victim’s bank account. You may think of fraudulent impersonation. But what if someone falsely stated that another person gave him permission to use their joint property as collateral on a loan? That sounds like a false statement but not a case of stolen identity. Yet a federal district court in Tennessee found that just this scenario constituted identity theft in a current case against real estate broker David Miller.
Perhaps the court’s holding doesn’t sound too troubling. After all, identity theft is a crime and it’s clearly behavior that we want to deter. But expanding the reach of what may fall under the federal identity theft laws doesn’t really deter the behavior that Congress sought to address by statute. It just makes it harder to anticipate the bounds of the law, and that is troubling.
Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 in order to address the growing problem of fraudsters taking people’s personal information to either steal from their existing accounts or to run up debt in the victims’ names. The act criminalized fraud in connection with the theft and misuse of personal identifying information. (Before the law was passed, only fraud in connection with identification documents was a federal crime.) But there was some concern that prosecutors were not vigorously going after identity theft cases. So Congress passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004. Again, this measure was aimed squarely at penalizing identity thieves who were attacking consumers’ financial accounts and credit. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), said identity theft is “a crime that we need to address and address seriously … for the protection of the credit of American citizens.”
Years later, the Department of Justice appears to have gotten the message and is actively prosecuting identity theft cases. All is well and good with the DOJ’s ordinary efforts in this area. On its website, the DOJ discusses identity theft issues in a familiar context, relating concerns over the misuse of “your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card number, your telephone calling card number, and other valuable identifying data.”
It also provides exemplary cases, which are again in keeping with the general understanding of what constitutes identity theft: (1) a woman pleaded guilty for using a stolen Social Security number to obtain thousands of dollars in credit and then filing for bankruptcy in the name of her victim; (2) a man pleaded guilty after obtaining private bank account information about an insurance company’s policyholders and using that information to deposit counterfeit checks; (3) a defendant was indicted on bank fraud charges for obtaining names, addresses, and Social Security numbers from a Web site and using those data to apply for a series of car loans over the Internet.
So with a pretty clear understanding of congressional intent and a fairly clear depiction of the scope of federal identity theft laws, it seems a bit like prosecutorial overreach for the DOJ to turn around and use these laws in a case like that against David Miller. Not in keeping with the sample cases above, Miller’s “theft” involved him “using the names of two individuals in a document that stated Miller had the authority to pledge real property as collateral for the loan when he had no such authority.” He was not trying to impersonate them to create new accounts or steal from their existing accounts. There are other laws to prosecute what Miller did – and he was found guilty of making false statements to a bank.
The concern here is that adding the identity theft count to Miller’s sentence is a misuse of the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act and an overexpansion of what behavior falls under the rubric of identity theft. What is next? Will the department uses this law to prosecute those who lie about references on a job application?
The general rule is that criminal laws should be strictly construed in favor of the defendant. The ruling against Miller seems a case in point where the Rule of Lenity was not applied. Miller has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which will hopefully bring the law back within its intended scope.
On February 28, 2013, the Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion in which it declined to address the legality of playing poker in the state but left open the possibility for the issue to be decided in a future case. The full opinion in the case, Daniels v. Mobley, is available here.
Charles Daniels, a former poker hall operator who operated charitable bingo halls in Portsmouth, Virginia, for decades, filed suit in 2010 seeking a declaratory judgment that Texas Hold ‘em poker is legal under Virginia’s gambling statute.
Under Virginia law, “illegal gambling” is defined as:
“the making, placing or receipt of any bet or wager in the Commonwealth of money or other thing of value, made in exchange for a chance to win a prize, stake or other consideration or thing of value, dependent upon the result of any game, contest or any other event the outcome of which is uncertain or a matter of chance, whether such game, contest or event occurs or is to occur inside or outside the limits of the Commonwealth.”
The law also states that:
“Nothing in this article shall be construed to prevent any contest of speed or skill . . . where participants may receive prizes or different percentages of a purse, stake or premium dependent upon whether they win or lose or dependent upon their position or score at the end of such contest.”
Daniels argued that the outcome of Texas Hold ‘em poker is determined by skill and not luck and therefore the game does not violate the Virginia statute. In the circuit court Daniels presented testimony of two math experts and a world champion poker player to support the skill argument.
The lower court ruled that poker was a game of chance, stating that “all the evidence indicates that the outcome of any one hand is uncertain.” Daniels then appealed the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The state Supreme Court declined to address the legality of poker, holding that the court could not rule on the case because the request for a declaratory judgment on the status of Texas Hold ‘em poker “failed to present a justiciable controversy over which the circuit court could exercise jurisdiction.” Since there was no justiciable controversy, the Supreme Court held that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the claim.
The court did not directly address the argument that poker is a game of skill and not chance, an argument that has been accepted by other courts. It thus left the door open for the argument to be made in the future.
Daniels also argued that the state’s anti-gambling statute is unconstitutionally vague. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the circuit court that the statute is not unconstitutionally vague because it gives fair notice and an individual of ordinary intelligence can discern its meaning.
In our view, poker is a game of skill and not chance and thus should not be considered gambling under the Virginia statute. The Virginia Supreme Court’s decision to rule on other grounds left poker supporters with a lost opportunity, but there will be other opportunities to make the argument in this and other courts.
A year ago, we wrote about the indictment in the Eastern District of Virginia of the executives and founders of Megaupload, one of the leading file-hosting sites on the Web. The charges were copyright infringement through the facilitation of piracy of copyrighted materials, money-laundering, and conspiracy. The site was shuttered after the indictment.
The case quickly got tied up in the U.S. Justice Department’s effort to extradite Kim Dotcom, Megaupload’s chief founder, from New Zealand, where he lives. After a series of setbacks, the DOJ just won a victory before a New Zealand appeals court. The extradition hearing is set for August 2013.
The issue before the appeals court was how much information the DOJ was required to turn over to Dotcom before the hearing. One of Megaupload’s defenses is that its activities were protected by the “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects Internet service providers from copyright liability for the activities of people who merely use their Web sites.
Dotcom wanted the DOJ to turn over, in advance of the hearing, information that it had about possible copyright infringement on the site – in other words, a good deal of the government’s evidence. Reversing a lower court, the New Zealand appeals court held that the DOJ need not turn over much of this material at this point.
“If a suspect was entitled to demand disclosure of all relevant documents on the basis that he or she wished to challenge not the reliability of the summarised evidence but rather the inferences that the requesting state seeks to draw from it,” the court wrote, then the extradition hearing process would not work properly. Rather, the suspect is entitled to a summary of the evidence but not to the government’s entire case at this juncture.
It thus appears that Dotcom will be able to get access to the DOJ’s entire case and to mount a full defense only if he is extradited to the United States and faces a criminal trial. But in order to hold such a trial, the DOJ will need to make a prima facie case at the extradition hearing, which Dotcom will be allowed to rebut, that Dotcom is guilty of the charged offenses. The appeals court said that this hearing will only involve a “limited weighing of evidence” and that the DOJ is entitled to some deference as to its reliability.
We have said before that this is a highly dubious prosecution. We are confident that despite this setback, Dotcom will get a full chance to present his case before an impartial tribunal.