Vancouver, Canada (CNN Business)The chief financial officer of Chinese tech company Huawei will have to wait another day to learn if she’ll be let go on bail.
Vancouver, Canada (CNN Business)The chief financial officer of Chinese tech company Huawei will have to wait another day to learn if she’ll be let go on bail.
(CNN Business)Eric Janszen is a self-confessed exercise bike addict but even he got tired of the monotonous pedaling.
When Michael Bennett played for the Seattle Seahawks, he celebrated wins with a victory dance in the team locker room. He did not celebrate them by burning the American flag, contrary to a viral Photoshopped picture that began making the rounds online in September of 2017. If you'd read the fact-checks on sites like Snopes.com, Time, and yep, even WIRED, you would have known that the photo of Bennett burning a flag, his teammates and coach looking on joyfully, was fake.
But if you happened to encounter the fake photo on Facebook, where it was repeatedly presented as real, and if you happened to object to NFL players like Bennett protesting during the national anthem, then you might have been inclined to believe what you saw. You might even have been inclined to write a comment like, "Shut down the NFL. Send them all overseas to see how much better their life will be," as one Facebook user wrote just last week, nearly a year after the photo began circulating and despite thousands of other comments identifying it as fake.
Doctored images are the scourge of the web-wide fight against fake news. Tech companies and researchers can analyze the behavior of a typical bot in order to sniff out new ones. They can limit the reach of news outlets that perpetually share stories flagged as false. They can see when accounts are coordinating their activity and wipe out whole networks at once. But determining whether a photo that's been meme-ified and screenshotted a thousand times over depicts something real requires a different level of forensic analysis. Researchers are beginning to develop software that can detect altered images, but they're locked in an arms race with increasingly skillful creators of fake images.
As memes have become the language of the internet, they've also become a key vehicle for misinformation. Fact-checking organizations dutifully work to debunk images like the flag-burning photo, but finding those fact-checks remains the responsibility of users, who are already busy scrolling through their phones, liking and sharing as they go. And rarely are those level-headed analyses as widely shared as the original misinformation.
"We want to scan your news feed for fake news as you browse."
Ash Bhat, RoBhat Labs
What we really need, says Ash Bhat, is a tool that proactively tells people when their media diet has become infected with misinformation, at the very moment they’re seeing it. So Bhat and his business partner, Rohan Phadte, both UC Berkeley undergrads, came up with a browser plug-in that does just that. Called SurfSafe, the plug-in, which launches today, allows people to hover over any image that appears in their browser, whether that’s on Facebook or a site like WIRED. SurfSafe instantly checks that photo against more than 100 trusted news sites and fact-checking sites like Snopes to see whether it’s appeared there before. The photo of Bennett burning the flag, for instance, would surface nine other articles where the image appeared, including fact checks from Snopes and Time.com.
“We want SurfSafe to become a solution that’s analogous to antivirus software,” Bhat says. “We want to scan your news feed for fake news as you browse.”
The concept for SurfSafe grew out of an earlier tool called BotCheck.me, developed by Bhat and Phadte’s startup, RoBhat Labs. It was also a browser extension that added a button to every Tweet and Twitter profile, which users could click to check whether that account likely belonged to a bot. Bhat and Phadte used machine learning to analyze the difference between typical bot behavior and human behavior on Twitter, and developed a model that they said could predict bots with over 93.5 percent accuracy.
Over the course of that work, the two students realized not only how much photo-based content these bots were sharing, but also just how difficult it was to vet. That’s a challenge afflicting both researchers and platforms, says Onur Varol, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University's Center for Complex Network Research, who has helped build a competitor to BotCheck.me called Botometer. “Image fakery or trying to create misleading information in photos is a much deeper problem,” says Varol. “It’s a really difficult task even for journalists to validate if they’re fake or real.”
That's especially true, Varol says, when the image itself is real, but is presented online in an entirely different context. A photo from one protest, for instance, might turn up in a story about another, misleading the viewer about what really happened.
SurfSafe isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s certainly an ambitious start. It stores a unique digital fingerprint for every photo on more than 100 news sites that SurfSafe considers trusted, including outlets like NYTimes.com, CNN.com, and FoxNews.com. It also saves a signature of every photo its users see while they’re browsing the internet with the plug-in installed. “One user can see hundreds or thousands of images per day, just with basic browsing habits,” Phadte says.1 Photos that are similar but doctored will have fingerprints, or "hashes," that are almost, but not precisely, the same. "If an image is Photoshopped, only part of the image hash is different, so ultimately, we can tell that these images are pretty similar," Phadte says.
When a user hovers over a photo, SurfSafe scans the entire database of fingerprints to see if it’s ever encountered that image before in its raw or doctored form. If it has, it instantly surfaces the other images on the right side of the screen, prioritizing the earliest instance of the image, as it’s most likely to be the original. Users then have the ability to flag the image as either propaganda, Photoshopped, or misleading, which helps inform the SurfSafe model going forward.
Bhat acknowledges the tool has some blind spots. If SurfSafe has never encountered an image before, for instance, the user will simply see that there are no matches, even if that image is, in fact, fake. But Bhat views that as a minor flaw. “The fake news we care about is the fake news that’s spreading virally,” he says. “If a piece of fake news is spreading, we’ll have seen it.”
The more people who use SurfSafe, the more images the tool will ingest. If SurfSafe can get a few hundred thousand users in its first year, Bhat says he expects to have a database of 100 billion fingerprints.
Varol views this as a valuable starting point, because it saves people—professional fact-checkers included—a step. “This tool might capture the easy aspects of fact-checking, so you don’t have to go through the image and do your own background check,” he says.
Still, there are limitations that remain out of Bhat and Phadte’s control, the biggest of which is getting people to install the plug-in in the first place. After all, it’s partly a lack of digital literacy that makes people vulnerable to fake news. It’s a bit of a leap to expect someone whose main window to the internet is Facebook to take the additional step of installing a fact-checking plug-in. Another challenge is the fact that right now, the plug-in is only available on Chrome, Firefox, and Opera web browsers. That means SurfSafe can't flag content people find on their phones when they're inside an app, like Facebook. RoBhat Labs is working on a mobile version of the tool.
The simplest way to ensure mass adoption of a tool like this would be for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to integrate this technology themselves. Facebook has started a version of this for news articles. When fact-checking organizations flag a news story as false, Facebook diminishes the story’s reach and surfaces related articles debunking the original story right underneath it. The company recently began expanding that feature to photos and videos. For now, however, much of that work begins manually, with human fact-checkers vetting the content. Automating that process, as SurfSafe is attempting to do, comes with the risk of getting it wrong. “Companies are trying to be more careful about when they’re deploying such systems to clean their platforms,” Varol says. “Making one mistake will cost them a lot more than software developed by a university.”
That underscores the stakes of what RoBhat Labs has set out to accomplish. When your aim is to rid the internet of misinformation, the last thing you want to do is create even more.
1Correction: 3:39 pm ET 8/22/2018 An earlier version of this story mistakenly quoted Phadte as saying the average user sees "hundreds of thousands" of images per day. The quote was "hundreds or thousands."
In Deutsche Bank AG Chief Executive Officer Christian Sewing’s push to get back into growth mode, there’s one specific business in which there are pretty much no hiring limits.
The private bank in Asia is still recruiting, even after bringing on board about 100 relationship managers and support staff in the first half, Lok Yim, who runs the Asia-Pacific wealth business, said in an interview. “I don’t think there’s a limit apart from what we can digest,” he said.
Few businesses offers such eye-watering opportunities for global banks right now as catering to Asia’s swelling millionaire class. While Sewing has cut thousands of jobs elsewhere, in Asia he’s locked in a battle with banks from Credit Suisse Group AG to Morgan Stanley for the bankers who can bring in wealthy clients — and generate revenue from them.
“We’ve been having strategy papers with Christian Sewing,” Yim said. “The discussion is about ‘how much more would you like to grow?’" he added.
Since taking over in April, Sewing has announced plans to cut at least 7,000 jobs and retrench in investment-banking areas such as prime finance and U.S. rates. More recently, however, the CEO has talked about the need to expand some operations. Wealth management in Asia, the Americas and Europe has been identified as among the bank’s most important areas for growth, according to its second-quarter earnings statement.
The size of wealth assets under management in Asia is second only to Deutsche Bank’s home market in Germany, though overall growth has been subdued in recent years. Total AUM was 216 billion euros ($251 billion) at the end of June, little changed from a year earlier.
Yim said the bank had a strong first half in Asia with “a lot of client activity in the first quarter that carried momentum into the second quarter." AUM in the region edged up to 51 billion euros at the end of June, from 47 billion euros a year earlier, which Yim said was due to both new money inflows and movement in the value of financial assets.
Yim expressed optimism that the recent hiring of relationship managers will bring more rich clients to the bank. “With new colleagues coming on board we are hopeful that we will, over a reasonable period of time, bring new clients onto the Deutsche platform," Yim said.
Despite recent market volatility, Deutsche Bank is advising its wealthy clients in the region to maintain their investments rather than move into safe havens like cash, Yim said. “We do not feel that this is a time to stay in cash. If anything, we remain fully invested but in a hedged environment."
Yim said he is looking to technology and a focus on certain countries and markets in order to contain costs and “sustain profitability" at a time when he is adding new bankers. For example, the bank has exited the wealth business in Australia and Japan in recent years, and no longer serves European clients from Asia, Yim said.
“We want to grow, but sustainably and safely," Yim said. “But we are not going to hire people for the sake of hiring."
Since the early 2000s, Amazon has quietly received more than $1.5 billion in government subsidies, in exchange for bringing new jobs to cities and states across the country. At the same time, low-wage employees at Amazon's grueling warehouses have sometimes had to rely on a different kind of government benefit, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, to make ends meet.
Now Senator Bernie Sanders is bringing renewed scrutiny to Amazon's reliance on taxpayer dollars to supplement wages. On Wednesday, the Vermont independent introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, which hits companies that have more than 500 employees with a 100 percent tax on some government benefits its workers receive, like public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps. For example: If the Stop BEZOS Act were to pass, McDonald’s would be taxed $100 every time one of its cashiers collected $100 in food stamps. The bill is designed to force large corporations to increase wages, and to raise awareness about how companies benefit from public welfare, even in a healthy economy.
The legislation would likely affect many large low-paying retailers, like Walmart and Home Depot, and also Amazon, which says it employs more than 125,000 full-time workers in its US fulfillment centers. The retail giant, which stayed silent amid President Trump’s repeated criticisms of the company, has mounted a public relations offensive in response to Sanders. Amazon even recently began instructing full-time “ambassadors” to promote positive stories about working in its fulfillment centers via a fleet of nearly identical Twitter accounts.
While Sanders is right to point out that many Amazon employees likely use public assistance to make ends meet, his new legislation doesn’t address the other kind of lucrative government benefits the retail giant often receives. In negotiating to open a new warehouse or other outpost, Amazon often obtains hefty tax breaks and other economic incentives from local politicians, the details of which aren’t always disclosed to taxpayers.
In the lead-up to the introduction of the Bezos bill, Sanders repeatedly singled out Amazon, now valued close to $1 trillion, for paying “employees wages that are so low that they are forced to depend on taxpayer-funded programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized housing to survive.” He also invited Amazon warehouse workers to share their experiences with his office, some of which he later made public.
The initiative provoked a rare response from the retail giant, which in a blog post accused the senator of making “inaccurate and misleading accusations against Amazon.” In its response, Amazon took issue with Sanders’ claim that thousands of its workers rely on food stamps, arguing there’s no way to know if they’re employees who deliberately chose to work part-time or were seasonally employed. The company declined further comment on the legislation.
Amazon has a point. It’s impossible to know exactly how many workers at companies like Amazon use public benefits like SNAP, because many states don’t keep track, according to an investigation from news site The New Food Economy conducted by reporter Claire Brown.
She found that in five states, Amazon ranked among the top 20 companies with the most employees living in households that receive food stamps, even in places where it's not a top employer. But she was unable to obtain data from 25 additional states where she sought public records, in part because they don’t exist, at least not in a uniform manner.
There’s also no way to know how much the corporations that Sanders’ legislation targets, like Walmart, benefit from SNAP recipients buying food at their stores. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture and food retailers have specifically fought to conceal data about which companies benefit the most from the estimated $70 billion doled out in SNAP benefits each year. A South Dakota newspaper has been suing the Department of Agriculture to make the information public since 2010, and the case may now go to the Supreme Court.
“Not only can we not prove the first side of the equation, which is how many employees use SNAP, but also how much companies make off of it,” says Brown, the New Food Economy reporter. “We can prove neither side of the coin.”
Sanders’ legislation focuses on public welfare programs, ignoring how and why local governments dole out so much corporate welfare to companies like Amazon, Tesla, Apple, and Foxconn, long before a single employee is hired. Professional sports teams and car makers also have received enormous incentives from local governments, but experts say Amazon is unique in the amount and scope of public assistance it has sought.
"Amazon is particularly adept at receiving incentives, including for their distribution centers,” says Nathan Jensen, a government professor at the University of Texas Austin and coauthor of Incentives to Pander: How Politicians Use Corporate Welfare for Political Gain. He says some states, like Maryland, have allowed Amazon to collect some taxes that workers would otherwise pay to the state.
In a rare move last year, Amazon publicly invited cities to submit proposals to be the site for a second headquarters, noting that “special incentive legislation” may be required.
Meanwhile, taxpayers, and even some local politicians, aren't informed about the details of what companies like Amazon will get in exchange for coming to town. Unlike, say, a proposed tax increase to pay for a new school, few public hearings usually take place over how much a newly arrived employer should be allowed to forgo paying in taxes.
Some municipalities submitted bids for HQ2, as the project is known, through their local chambers of commerce, shielding the proposed incentive packages from open-records laws. The final 20 cities, cut down from over 200, were also reportedly required to sign nondisclosure agreements with Amazon. In some cases, the retail giant has also argued that the discounts it receives on public utilities amount to a trade secret.
Jensen says that economic incentives can come at the expense of public services like schools, and that evidence suggests firms will still bring jobs to new areas without them. "School districts are especially hit by many of the property tax abatements where they often struggle to finance schools or there have to be property tax increases to maintain the same level of services," he explains. "Most of the evidence suggests that incentives are rarely pivotal in attracting investment… Many of the things that really matter to firms, highways and workforce quality, are paid for through taxes."
Despite the potential downsides, Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, says companies often succeed in securing sweetheart deals because of the intense competition among cities, towns, and states to secure new jobs and foster economic growth. It creates a race to provide the biggest tax breaks for all sorts of companies, beyond Amazon.
In the wake of the 2008 recession, “politicians are desperate to look aggressive on jobs and they have a lot fewer deals to compete for,” says LeRoy, whose group compiled the total of Amazon's subsidies. “Amazon has completely played the system that it inherited like a fiddle.”
In 2006, the Supreme Court had the chance to decide whether such tax incentives are constitutional under the Commerce Clause, but the justices ultimately avoided directly confronting the issue.
Economic incentive deals often last longer than the terms of politicians who broker them. But in the moment, the chance to stand next to a figure like Jeff Bezos at the unveiling of a new warehouse is often too valuable a political moment to pass up.
“What governor doesn’t want to stand next to Tim Cook and announce a new data center, even if it’s only going to employ 50 people?” asks LeRoy. “The political power, the political ‘juice’ of associating yourself with a famous company is enormous.”
President Trump has sought to politically benefit from the same type of incentive package that Amazon has received, when he reportedly personally helped organize the eye-popping $4.8 billion Foxconn deal arranged to lure the iPhone manufacturer to Wisconsin. As a businessman, Trump also secured similar deals for his own properties.
The Stop BEZOS Act ultimately only addresses one kind of public assistance that companies like Amazon stand to benefit from: welfare programs like food stamps. The legislation, were it to pass, would do little to stop local governments from competing in secret to attract companies, and jobs, to their cities. Implementing the legislation would also prove onerous, since information like what companies employ food stamp recipients isn’t readily available.
But Sanders may still succeed in putting pressure on local politicians to examine whether the deals they’ve made with the world’s most wealthy corporations are fair. The stakes are high: Amazon is set to soon announce the final location of its second headquarters, and Apple is currently shopping for the site of another campus as well.
The list of perks at Deutsche Bank AG is shrinking fast.
Investment bankers at Germany’s largest lender have been told to travel coach class on trains; fewer are able to attend conferences and some former employees said severance pay was less generous than previous handouts. Even small treats like the daily fruit bowls are disappearing.
The frugal ethos described by half a dozen people with knowledge of the company’s policies reflects Chief Executive Officer Christian Sewing’s focus on saving after a series of botched turnaround efforts. The appointment of a new chief operating officer, Frank Kuhnke, as a direct report to Sewing is a signal that the CEO wants to have better control over processes and expenses. Kuhnke’s efficient yet blunt tactics have earned him the moniker ‘Frank the Tank,’ one person said.
Sewing has been warning senior managers at the investment bank that if they can’t show they’re able to control expenses, he won’t trust them to be able to grow revenue either. Managers are being given fixed budgets that they must not exceed under any circumstances, said the people, asking not to be identified in discussing internal information.
While a large part of the bank’s savings will come from a plan to lay off at least 7,000 people, Sewing is scrutinizing non-compensation expenses to change a culture where budget overruns were often seen as trivial, the people said. That’s especially true of the securities unit.
Sewing’s predecessor, John Cryan, had previously targeted more costly incentives like a NetJets account for top executives, but expenses still spiked in the fourth quarter of last year as the bank set aside hundreds of millions of euros for bonuses to stem defections. Cryan, who once said that he didn’t understand how “additional excess riches” drive people, later had to abandon a cost target, a decision widely seen as accelerating his ouster in April of this year.
“Deutsche Bank has a history of negative surprises on costs in the fourth quarter, including last year,” Sewing said on an analyst call in late July. “That pattern ends in 2018.”
A spokesman for Deutsche Bank declined to comment on the cost saving measures.
Travel expenses are one focus of the cost cuts that are now being implemented. Investment bankers in London were scolded last year by the then-regional head of the unit, Alasdair Warren, for their profligate travel spending, one person said. The unit is also reviewing expenses for legal and compliance matters after comparing itself to other banks and finding it’s doing much worse.
Internal processes have long been a focus of cost cuts at the lender, but the bank has struggled to simplify them. It said this month that internal reviews show its anti-money laundering processes remain too complex and there was a “need to improve in terms of internal processes.” Last year, the Federal Reserve designated the bank’s U.S. business as troubled and this year it failed the bank in its annual stress tests on qualitative grounds, citing “widespread and critical deficiencies” in its internal controls.
Kuhnke, the new COO, is taking a fresh look at processes and has already implemented projects — for example getting so-called know-your-customer documentation — that other managers previously failed to carry out. Deutsche Bank is also aiming to accelerate cost savings from the merger of its two German retail units, and it’s focusing on eliminating duplication in back-office functions and computer systems at its German headquarters.
The bank has also been closing its office in Houston and shrinking the office in Chicago. Previous plans by DWS, the bank’s asset management business, to move to a new Frankfurt office were abandoned amid a stronger focus on costs.
Cutting compensation expenses, however, won’t be easy. The CEO has promised shareholders that Deutsche Bank’s headcount will fall “well below” 90,000 by the end of next year and he would actually like to get the figure below 87,000, according to two people briefed on his thinking. But an agreement with labor unions prevents Deutsche Bank from firing domestic employees against their will until mid-2021.
Bonus cuts won’t be easy either. The bank has signaled it won’t be skimpy on pay, at least not for its top performers. Compensation expenses in the investment bank actually rose in the second quarter despite a lower headcount as the bank continued to set aside money for future bonus payments.
Deutsche Bank’s costs “remain stubbornly high as the group has to make up for a lack of investment in previous years, and German cost reduction is limited by union agreements,” Amit Goel, an analyst at Barclays Plc, wrote in a note.
The battle lines over net neutrality are firmly drawn. On one side are internet advocacy groups, large tech companies, and most Democrats. On the other are free-market adherents, telecom companies, and most Republicans.
Then there’s Charles "Chip" Pickering, a conservative Republican former member of Congress and CEO of a telecommunications-industry group called Incompas. He supports net neutrality.
"I don't think there's anyone who understands tech and telecommunications as well as he does," says US representative Anna Eshoo (D-California). "He can give a presentation to a complete neophyte and get them to join the parade because he makes it so compelling."
Pickering isn't new to the fight over net neutrality. He introduced one of the first net neutrality bills in Congress during his stint as a representative from Mississippi from 1997 until 2009. At that point, net neutrality wasn't on the agenda of many politicians on either side of the aisle.
Under Pickering's leadership, Incompas has been a steadfast defender of rules adopted by the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission that ban broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from blocking or discriminating against lawful content. That’s placed it at odds with other industry groups working to undermine efforts to mandate net neutrality.
Incompas itself is something of a paradox. Historically, it's been a voice in Washington for smaller telecommunications companies. But in recent years it also welcomed tech companies as members. And not just companies that have dabbled in offering broadband services themselves, such as Facebook and Google's parent company, Alphabet. Its ranks also include Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter.
What these companies have in common, Pickering explains, is opposition to the policy preferences of incumbent broadband companies like AT&T. "The idea is to 'unite the tribes,' if I were to use a Braveheart analogy," Pickering says. "I wanted to bring all of us who wanted competition and innovation into one alliance."
While other Republicans, such as FCC chair Ajit Pai, see net neutrality regulations as government interference in the free market, Pickering sees such rules as necessary to preserve competition on the internet. He notes that most people have access to only one or two broadband providers, according to FCC reports.
Pickering traces his reverence for markets and competition to his time working with a church group in communist Hungary in the 1980s after graduating from the University of Mississippi. "Having grown up in a small town in Mississippi, going to Europe and living in the so-called Soviet Bloc was very much an awakening in trying to understand how the world works," he says.
'I don't think there's anyone who understands tech and telecommunications as well as he does.'
US representative Anna Eshoo, on Charles Pickering
After returning to the US, Pickering received an MBA from Baylor University, where he served as a graduate assistant to a comparative economics professor who studied Western and Soviet-bloc economies. Pickering concluded that the differences in standards of living and individual freedom he saw between the US and Hungary stemmed largely from the different economic systems.
"I hate to see the consequences of monopolies, and I love what happens when you unleash free-market competition," he says. "It really gives individuals maximum freedom and opportunity."
After business school, Pickering worked in President George H. W. Bush's administration, then landed a job as a staffer for US senator Trent Lott of Mississippi in 1992. Pickering was soon immersed in telecommunications issues such as cable-television competition and wireless spectrum auctions.
It was topical work for a senator from Mississippi, which was something of a hotbed of telco activity. American Cable Systems, the company that became Comcast, started in Tupelo, Mississippi. WorldCom, which changed its name to MCI after acquiring MCI in 1997, was founded in Jackson, Mississippi. And SkyTel, which pioneered two-way texting, was founded in Clinton, Mississippi.
"We're not only the birthplace of blues, but the birthplace of texting," Pickering says.
His stint for Lott culminated in his work on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first and last major update to telecommunications law since 1934. The act deregulated large swaths of the industry and relaxed media ownership rules. It's been criticized for paving the way for more consolidation in media and telecommunications. At the time, Pickering saw it as a chance to promote competition by removing legal barriers that kept companies out of the pay-TV, local telephone, and long-distance markets.
Pickering was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1996 and eventually landed on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which handles telecommunications issues. In 2006, he cosponsored a bill that would have made it easier for telephone companies to offer paid TV services and authorized the FCC to enforce a few basic net neutrality protections. The bill wasn't welcomed by net neutrality advocates, who wanted stricter net neutrality provisions and more rule-making authority for the FCC. But it passed the House, 321 to 101, with bipartisan support before dying in the Senate. Pickering tried to pass net neutrality legislation again in 2008 when he teamed up with representative Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who had co-sponsored a separate failed net neutrality bill with Eshoo and others; but that bill never made it out of committee.
Pickering retired from Congress that year. The Democrats had just gained a majority in the House, and Pickering thought he'd be less effective. He also wanted to spend more time with his five sons. "After 20 years of public service, I wanted to make a little bit better of a living and provide more presence and be a part of their lives," he says.
Pickering landed a job at Incompas, then known as Comptel, in 2014, at a critical juncture for the group.
The organization started out as the Association of Long Distance Telephone Companies, or Altel, in 1981, then changed its name to Comptel in 1985 after merging with the American Council of Competitive Telecommunications. The group played an important role in the telecommunications industry after the government broke AT&T into seven regional carriers, known as the Baby Bells.
"There was a series of litigations about what the restrictions mean, what the Bell companies could do, what the Bell companies could not do," says Jeff Blumenfeld, co-chair of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler's antitrust and trade regulation practice, who worked at the Department of Justice during the breakup.
Comptel helped make the case for a competitive market. It played a similar role in the wake of the 1996 act, as regulators implemented its policies.
By the time Pickering took over the organization, Ma Bell's progeny weren't babies anymore. They'd merged their way into three telecommunications giants: AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon. Meanwhile, Comcast had evolved from small-town cable provider to the largest cable television and home broadband provider in the country. Verizon had swallowed up MCI. Pickering saw the influence that companies like AT&T and Comcast wielded in Washington and realized that their smaller rivals needed partners that opposed the incumbents’ agenda. The tech industry, ever worried about the control that carriers have over how customers access their content, fit the bill perfectly. Bringing in the internet giants infused the group with both the cash and cachet that it would need to fight the next series of battles. The organization changed its name in 2015 to reflect the fact that it now encompassed more industries.
Even with the new members, life has been rough for the organization in the Trump era. One of Pai's first actions as FCC chair was to ditch an Obama-era proposal to lower price caps on "business data services"—which provide connectivity to ATMs, for example—and instead eliminate caps for much of the market. And, of course, the agency voted in December to jettison the hard-won net neutrality regulations.
Pickering and company did land a big win last week, when the FCC approved rules that will make it easier for smaller companies to string their wires along existing utility poles. It sounds boring but could spur more competition and lower broadband prices.
But even as the group celebrates that victory, a bigger problem looms, as the FCC considers a petition filed by rival telecom group USTelecom that could cut off access to much of the infrastructure that Incompas' member companies rely on today. Dane Jasper, CEO of broadband provider and Incompas member Sonic, calls the petition “a knife at the throat of the entire competitive industry.”
And consolidation could thin the organization’s ranks. In 2016, Verizon snapped up XO Communications and CenturyLink bought Level 3. Such deals can make for strange bedfellows within the group. Verizon has long been a “carrier member,” which enables it to participate in Incompas’s trade shows, but bylaws forbid the former Baby Bells from having policy voting rights within the organization.
Earlier this year, T-Mobile agreed to buy Sprint, one of Incompas’ earliest members. The deal is pending. Pickering says Incompas does not have a position the acquisition. (edited)
When it comes to net neutrality, public opinion appears to be on Incompas' side. Earlier this year, a Morning Consult poll found that 60 percent of registered voters, including 63 percent of Republicans, support the idea. Republican voters were more likely to support net neutrality than Democrats or independents in the poll.
That may be pushing more of Pickering's fellow Republicans to his side of the issue. In May, three Senate Republicans broke ranks to support legislation that would restore the FCC's rules, and last month Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) became the first GOP House member to do so, at an event cohosted by Incompas.
Pickering still has a long way to go to win over enough Republicans to restore net neutrality protections. “If anyone can get everyone to the table, it’s Chip,” Eshoo says.
The first-ever medical treatment derived from a marijuana plant will hit the U.S. market in a few months after regulators on Monday gave the epilepsy treatment the green light.
The Food and Drug Administration approved GW Pharmaceuticals Plc’s Epidiolex to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy, according to a statement from the agency. The liquid is made from a compound in the marijuana plant called cannabidiol, a different chemical from tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which gets users high.
Epilepsy patients and doctors have long had interest in marijuana’s therapeutic potential. The approval marks the first time patients will have access in the U.S. to a cannabis-derived drug that has undergone a safety and efficacy review by the FDA.
“The same principles around any prescription medication can now be applied to cannabis-based medications,” GW Pharma Chief Executive Officer Justin Gover said in an interview before the FDA’s decision. “That underlies the whole value of this. We now remove ourselves from being a special case and now meet the standard criteria for prescription medications.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a separate statement stressing the importance of proper research on medical uses of marijuana and cautioning other companies that might try to push their pot treatments.
“This is an important medical advance,” Gottlieb said of Epidiolex. “But it’s also important to note that this is not an approval of marijuana or all of its components.”
GW Pharma’s American depositary receipts fell less than 1 percent to $149.85 at 1:03 p.m. in New York. They had gained 15 percent this year through Friday’s close.
GW Pharma has to wait to sell Epidiolex until the Drug Enforcement Administration decides what restrictions to place on the drug to ensure that it reaches only the patients for whom it is intended. The DEA, which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug, is required to make that determination in 90 days, Gover said. FDA staff said at an April meeting on the drug with outside advisers that cannibidiol, known as CBD, “does not appear to have abuse potential.”
Epidiolex is approved to treat Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes in patients age 2 or older. Both are considered severe forms of epilepsy that begin in childhood. They’re resistant to many existing treatments, and as many as 20 percent of children with Dravet syndrome die before reaching adulthood, according to the National Institutes of Health.
GW Pharma will make Epidiolex in the U.K., where the company is based, Gover said, and export the finished product to the U.S. As of last week, the company hadn’t determined the price but was in preliminary talks with insurance companies to make them aware Epidiolex is coming, he said.
While Epidiolex is the first approved medicine that comes from a pot plant, the FDA has allowed the use a few drugs made from synthetic cannabinoids, including Insys Therapeutics Inc.’s Syndros for loss of appetite in people with AIDS and nausea caused by chemotherapy. Insys is developing a cannabidiol oral solution for a severe type of epileptic seizure known as infantile spasms, and childhood epilepsy defined by staring spells where the child isn’t aware or responsive.
U.S. millennials are quick to whip out their wallets for pricey avocado toast and craft beer. But when it comes to rewarding the waiters and bartenders who serve them, those wallets often stay closed.
Ten percent of millennials don’t tip at all when dining out compared with only three percent among the older generations, according to a study released Monday by CreditCards.com, an online credit card marketplace.
And those millennials who do tip at restaurants tend to leave a median gratuity of 15 percent, less than the overall average. Gen-Xers, baby boomers and the oldest Americans, the so-called Silent Generation, are more generous, leaving between 18 and 20 percent.
“It was interesting to see that millennials are the worst tippers—because the typical restaurant worker a millennial,” CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz said in an interview. “It’s self-defeating.”
The study was conducted for CreditCards.com by market-research firm GfK, which gathered data last month from 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older. Millennials were defined as between the ages of 18 and 37.
Beyond those poor waiters, taxi drivers and baristas fared even worse with their millennial customers. Apparently even the suggestion that a tip is expected puts some of these young people off. Eighteen percent of millennials surveyed said they typically decline to leave any amount when presented with pre-entered tipping options—say if they’re in a taxi or taking a Lyft or Uber.
Why are these American youth, many of whom work in tip-reliant industries, so cheap? The answer may be economic. “Millennials’ financial struggles are a big reason they tip less,” Schulz said.
But other data point to a more cynical explanation. Millennials do tend to spend more of their disposable income eating out, according to 2017 data from Merrill Lynch. After all, that tip can pay for dessert.
But twenty and thirty-somethings aren’t the only skinflint demographic. Men, southerners, westerners, parents with young children, lower earners and the less educated said they tip less in restaurants than the overall median of 18 percent, according to the study.
Who, then, leaves the largest tips?
The study found people who are college educated, over the age of 65, from the Northeast and Midwest, and women all reported leaving a median of 20 percent—an above average tip.
Jerry Morales, the mayor of Midland, Texas, and a local restaurateur, is being whipsawed by the latest Permian Basin shale-oil boom.
It’s fueling the region and starving it at the same time. Sales-tax revenue is hitting a record high, allowing the city to get around to fixing busted roads. But the crazy-low 2.1 percent unemployment rate is a bear. As the proprietor of Mulberry Cafe and Gerardo’s Casita, Morales is working hard to retain cooks. As a Republican first elected in 2014, he oversees a government payroll 200 employees short of what it needs to fully function.
“This economy is on fire,” he said from a back table at the cafe the other day, watching as the lunchtime crowd lined up for the Asian Zing Salad and Big Mo’s Toaster hamburger.
Fire, of course, can be dangerous. In the country’s busiest oil patch, where the rig count has climbed by nearly one third in the past year, drillers, service providers and trucking companies have been poaching in all corners, recruiting everyone from police officers to grocery clerks. So many bus drivers with the Ector County Independent School District in nearby Odessa quit for the shale fields that kids were sometimes late to class. The George W. Bush Childhood Home, a museum in Midland dedicated to the 43rd U.S. president, is smarting from a volunteer shortage.
The oil industry has such a ferocious appetite for workers that it’ll hire just about anyone with the most basic skills. “It is crazy,” said Jazmin Jimenez, 24, who zipped through a two-week training program at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, about 100 miles north of Midland, and was hired by Chevron Corp. as a well-pump checker. “Honestly I never thought I’d see myself at an oilfield company. But now that I’m here — I think this is it.”
That’s understandable, considering the $28-a-hour she makes is double what she was earning until December as a guard at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs. When the boom goes bust, as history suggests they all do, shale-extraction businesses won’t be able to out-pay most employers anymore. Jimenez said she’ll take the money as long as it lasts.
And this one could go on for a while. Companies are more cost-conscious than ever, and the evolution of oilfield technology continues to make finding and producing oil quicker and cheaper in the pancaked layers of rock in the Permian. It now accounts for about 30 percent of all U.S. output.
There’s no question the economic upside is big in the basin, which covers more than 75,000 square miles in west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Midland saw year-over-year increases of at least 34 percent in sales-tax collections in each of the last four months. Morales said coffers are full enough that he may ask for raises for city workers — so they don’t bolt for the oil fields.
Another surprise: Some of his students, with two-year associate degrees, can make more than he does, with his master’s in science, electrical and electronic engineering. At Midland College’s oil and gas program, which trains for positions like petroleum-energy technician, enrollment is down about 20 percent from last year. But schools that teach how to pass the test for a CDL — commercial drivers license — are packed.
“A CDL is a golden ticket around here,” said Steve Sauceda, who runs the workforce training program at New Mexico Junior College. “You are employable just about anywhere.”
And you can make a whole lot more money than waiting tables at Gerardo’s Casita. Jeremiah Fleming, 30, is on track to pull down $140,000 driving flatbed trucks for Aveda Transportation & Energy Services Inc., hauling rigs.
“This will be my best year yet,” said Fleming, who used to work in the once-bustling shale play in North Dakota. “I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Morales, a native Midlander and second-generation restaurateur, has seen it happen so many times before. Oil prices go up, and energy companies dangle such incredible salaries that restaurants, grocery stores, hotels and other businesses can’t compete. People complain about poor service and long lines at McDonald’s and the Walmart and their favorite Tex-Mex joints. Rents soar.
“This is my home town. I don’t want that reputation,” he said. He’s not yet quite sure what to do about it as mayor of a city that has been on the oil-industry rollercoaster for nearly 100 years.
He has, though, come up with strategies for his restaurants. For example, he now issues paychecks weekly, instead of twice monthly, and offers more opportunities for over-time hours. He also makes common-sense bids to employees tempted by the Permian’s siren call.
His pitch: “If you’ll stay with me, I can give you three quarters of what the oil will give you but you don’t have to get dirty or worry about getting hurt.” And just maybe, when crude crashes, they’ll still be employed.