Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Corruption of Barack Obama

Barack Obama stands accused of moral shortcomings regarding money in politics: he has not invited the press to all of his fundraisers.

Obama has voluntarily disclosed his bundlers and opened some fundraisers to the media. But that is not enough. He is not inviting the media to all his fundraisers, probably to protect the privacy of his supporters. After all, Hillary may yet become president, and like most politicians, she is not known for forgiving and forgetting.

Obama might learn a lesson here. If you give the media what they want, they will only demand more. If you give them access to all your fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once-promising reformer.  On the other hand, if you don’t let them come to the fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once promising reformer.

The media have only one storyline about private money in politics: it corrupts the process. You don’t get a pass by supporting their crusade to restrict private money in elections (Obama does) or by giving in to their endless demands for access. They will write the same story.

Obama has shared that narrative until now. He has promised to move against big money when he has power. He is also famously open-minded. Perhaps his own “corruption” might occasion some rethinking about the politics of “reform.”

Wannabe Software and Movie Pirates: Hold Your Fire

A story from the Associated Press today suggests that WTO-sanctioned piracy is still a way off. Antiguan Finance Minister Errol Cort arrives in Washington today to discuss the internet gambling dispute with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, in hope of resolving the case.

Last month I reported that a WTO arbitration panel had agreed with Antigua that the U.S. restrictions on gambling over the internet entitled the Antiguans to retaliation – in this case by suspending its obligations under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) to protect U.S. trademarks and copyrights, as well as suspending market access for some U.S. services firms. Antigua has long maintained that retaliation is not its preferred option, and would rather negotiate with the Americans to allow regulated access to the U.S. internet gambling market.

Antigua has strongly rejected the WTO arbitrators’ decision about the level of damages – a decision that is made especially controversial given that one of the three panelists dissented from the opinion, a rare occurrence in WTO jurisprudence, and by their own admission that they were on “shaky grounds” in determining the level of damages. According to Antigua, by basing their analysis on the “most likely scenario of compliance” by the United States rather than the export opportunities foregone, the arbitrators were showing unfair sympathy to the American case. The Americans were pleased that the $21 million in annual damages was well below the figure sought by Antigua ($3.4 billion), but expressed concern over the form of retaliation authorized. The United States had originally argued that their restrictions were worth only $500,000 in damages.

Notwithstanding the back-and-forth over the amount of sanctions, a couple of problems remain. First, who is to say how much it is worth to, say, download illegally a new CD or movie. Is it equivalent to the market value of buying a legal copy of the material? Or is it worth the cost of the download itself (less than a penny, I imagine). That is important because the WTO would limit Antigua to $21 million fairly strictly, and the U.S., under instruction from Hollywood and the software industry, would be expected to pounce if they saw the limit violated. There is also the question of whether Antigua would be able to export the fruits of its copyright violation to other countries and “earn” the $21 million that way.

While this is not the first time that the WTO has sanctioned violating intellectual property protections by suspending obligations under (that first came in March 2000, when the WTO gave Ecuador permission to suspend TRIPS obligations to the tune of $201 million in their dispute over European banana tariffs), the authorization has never been “actioned.” And, if the U.S. comes to its senses and begins to allow its citizens to gamble online freely, this case may not bring that to fruition either.

DHS: Require REAL ID for Prescriptions

C|Net News reports that DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker called today for national ID checks when Americans buy prescription drugs. This is yet another in a growing list of activities that federal authorities would bring within their control should the national ID system created by the REAL ID Act be implemented.

The eminently savvy Baker was unintentionally ironic when he reportedly said he “doesn’t ‘understand’ the civil liberties objections to the plan.”

The Supreme Court Helps Out the Economy

Today the Supreme Court, in one of the most important securities law rulings in years, Stoneridge Investment Partners v. Scientific-Atlanta, decided that fraud claims are not allowed against third parties who did not directly mislead investors but were business partners with those who did. Investors, the Court said in a narrow 5-3 ruling (Justice Breyer took no part in the case), may only sue those who issued statements or otherwise took direct action that the investors had relied upon in buying or selling stock – whether that involved public statements, omissions of key facts, manipulative trading, or other deceptive conduct. One impact of the decision is likely to be the end of a $40 billion lawsuit against financial institutions growing out of the Enron scandal.

Although this was the result expected by Court-watches, the split decision – along the usual “liberal/conservative” lines, with Justice Kennedy writing the opinion as he has tended to in such situations – was a bit of a surprise. The opposite result would have been disastrous for Wall Street, with massive ramifications on the economy as a whole. It would also have greatly expanded the court-created private right of action that is not expressly spelled out in the relevant securities laws. Ultimately, the Court’s ruling in Stoneridge wisely prevents an implied cause of action against the whole marketplace in which those who do directly mislead investors do business.