“No taxation without representation”

In the mid-1700s, British colonists in the 13 Colonies, which eventually became the original United States of America, began to summarize their primary grievance against British rule with the slogan, "No taxation without representation." Although certainly not the only cause, many historians agree this was one of the primary grievances that led to the American Revolution. Well this year – 2013 – marks a Centennial which I suspect not a single citizen of the United States will hail as worthy of celebration. This is the 100th anniversary of the tax law.

Tax laws in the United States did exist before 1913. In fact, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861 during the Civil War to help pay for the expense of war, but this tax was repealed 10 years later. Then in 1894, Congress enacted a "flat rate" income tax, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional the very next year since it constituted a direct tax that was not allocated on a pro rata basis by each state’s population.

The modern day income tax on individuals arises from the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was passed by Congress in 1909, and that legislated the state apportionment requirement out of existence, giving Congress the authority to enact what has become the individual income tax we all know and love today. Since any amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires ratification by at least three-fourths of the states, the Congressional legislation did not actually become the 16th Amendment to the United States Constitution until February 1913, when it was ratified by the state of Wyoming.

Until World War II, income tax applied to less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, and since the tax brackets were graduated, tax historian Joseph Thorndike has noted that in 1935, when the threshold for reaching the top tax bracket was income of $5 million, the top bracket applied to only one person in the United States – John D. Rockefeller, Jr. One last bit of IRS trivia – the filing date for income tax in the United States used to be March 15, but the date was pushed to April 15 when Congress overhauled the income tax statutes in 1954.

I’m sure every U.S. citizen now believes that one of the results of the American Revolution remains that each of us feel absolutely represented by our federal government and therefore we don’t mind paying taxes. Right? Just in case you did want to have your own personal celebration of the 100th anniversary, please feel free to print your own copy of the original 1913 IRS Form 1040 and do with it what you wish. I might just fill it out and send it in today!

MasterCard & Visa to Merchants: Let’s Settle This the Old Fashioned Way!

Whether you are a payment instrument (think credit, debit, gift, stored value, prepaid cards and more) expert or a retail merchant, a corporate purchasing manager or, like the rest of us, a consumer, you cannot have escaped the news, announced this past Friday (Friday the 13th), that Visa and MasterCard have agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by some merchants in connection with the fees merchants pay to be permitted to "accept" credit cards. I certainly couldn’t escape it. In fact, Joe Rosenbaum (that’s me) is quoted in yesterday’s American Banker article "‘We Won’ vs. ‘You Lost’: Reactions to Credit Card Settlement" written by Maria Aspan and Victoria Finkle.

While the settlement must still be approved by the court and provides billions of dollars in payments to merchants, the most contentious piece of this settlement relates to the so-called "interchange fees" (sometimes referred to as a "discount rate" – no pun intended) that refers to the charge imposed on merchants by the credit card associations and owners for their right to accept their branded credit cards from consumers.

When a merchant accepts a credit card, that merchant must have a relationship with the "brand" on the card (e.g., American Express®, Discover®, JCB®, MasterCard®, Visa®, Diners Club®, etc.), either directly or through a member institution. Because the brand owners operate vast settlement and transaction processing networks that allow you to use your card to buy a suit in Hong Kong or King Kong at a toy store, they charge merchants an interchange fee for the privilege of riding their networks – card acceptance translates into more business, say the brand owners.

If the settlement is approved, it will see MasterCard and Visa modify their operating rules to permit merchants to charge the consumer more to pay with a card. Merchants will have the right to "surcharge" the use of a card, rather than if you use cash or another payment method.

Where will this lead – it’s complicated. Stay tuned. The National Association of Convenience Stores has announced it has already retained counsel to challenge approval of the proposed settlement. The association says the settlement doesn’t go far enough and, for example, doesn’t put a limit on how high the brand associations can raise the interchange fees charged to merchants. Whether approved or whether the law suit goes forward, or some other settlement is reached – it’s complicated.

So, if you need lawyers to help you navigate the charted and uncharted waters of the financial seas ahead, talk to us. It’s what we do. Contact me, Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum, or any of the lawyers at Rimon you routinely work with. Our FIG (Financial Industry Group) lawyers are experienced in virtually every aspect of the law or finance, financial institutions and payment systems – from privacy and GLB, to chargebacks and B2B. Call us, you’ll like us.

Gift Cards Deal With Discounts & Charity; Chart Updated

This post was written by Keri S. Bruce and Joseph I. Rosenbaum.

If you have been coming back to Legal Bytes to keep up with this and other developments in the law of Advertising Technology & Media ("ATM"), you know that we have been following the world of gift cards for many years (e.g., Gift Card Issuers Fight & Switch, Gift Cards in New Jersey: It’s Complicated!, Federal Reserve Board Has a Free Gift (Card) For You, Credit Card Act of 2009: Act I, Scene 1, Gift Cards in the Legal Limelight, Gift Cards: The Updated Chart is Still Free). If you are a regular Legal Bytes reader, you also probably know that we published and routinely update our U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart – a reference tool you will certainly find helpful, although not a substitute for experienced legal counsel. In addition to the amendments noted below, we have updated our U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart and you can read or download the updated chart right here (U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart) [PDF].

You will also appreciate that we advise clients in this area all the time, assisted by an able team of financial services regulatory specialists, and so it will come as no surprise that we are telling you about some changes to the law in Vermont and Rhode Island that apply to gift cards. The term "gift certificate" is often used in the law, but separate definitions make it clear that the law applies to cards or any similar instrument, regardless of the material (e.g., paper, plastic, beads).

In addition to the Federal Credit Card Act of 2009, many states have their own regulations of gift cards and gift certificates. While many states have carve-outs in their gift certificate laws for loyalty and reward cards, Vermont has gone a step further and embraced group coupon/discount providers by separately defining these cards and providing separate disclosures to benefit consumers. In light of popular group coupon/discount providers, new marketing efforts involving gift cards and the continued prevalence of class actions, such as In re Groupon Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, where Groupon reached a nationwide class action litigation settlement over allegations it had illegal expiration dates and other provisions on its vouchers, it is even more important to stay on top of these ever-changing laws.

Effective as of May 18, 2012, amendments to the Vermont statutes (Vt. Stat. § 2701 et seq.) seek to address issues arising from popular group coupon/discount providers. The new amendments introduce definitions for "a loyalty, award, or promotional gift certificate," "paid value" and "promotional value," extend the expiration dates for the paid value of a gift certificate, and remove the specific exemption for food product gift certificates.

Under the amended law, a "loyalty, award, or promotional gift certificate" is defined as a gift certificate issued on a prepaid basis primarily for personal, family, or household purposes to a consumer in connection with a loyalty, award or promotional program, and that is redeemable upon presentation to one or more merchants for goods or services, or is usable at automated teller machines.

These definitions are important because, if defined as loyalty, award or promotional gift certificates, they can be exempt from the statute’s requirements on expiration dates and fees and some other restrictions that would otherwise apply, provided that certain requirements are met.

To qualify, these instruments must disclose, on the front of the certificate, that the certificate is issued for loyalty, award or promotional purposes, and the date of expiration for both the paid value and promotional value (if any). (More on that distinction in a moment.) On or along with the instrument, the consumer must be informed as to the amount and conditions under which fees may be imposed, and if a fee is assessed and on the instrument, a toll-free telephone number and, if one is maintained, a website a consumer may use to obtain fee information (disclosed on the certificate).

The Vermont amendment distinguishes between "paid" and "promotional" value. Paid value is the value of any money or other consideration given in exchange for the gift certificate. Promotional value means any value shown on a gift certificate in excess of the paid value. Example, a loyalty program buys 1 billion $25 gift cards and pays $19.99 each. The $19.99 is the paid value and the $5.01 is the promotional value. The statute prohibits the paid value from expiring for five years (extended from the previous three-year requirement), while the promotional value is exempt from the restrictions on expiration dates and fees.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, amendments – effective as of June 19, 2012 – to gift certificate provisions of the state’s Unfair Sales Practices law (R.I. Gen. Laws § 6-13-12) allow gift cards donated for fundraising purposes to expire, but only if the card clearly states that the instrument has been donated for charity and a clearly defined expiration date of not less than one year after the issuance, is disclosed to the recipient.

If you need help from lawyers who know this area and can provide experienced, practical counsel, contact Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum or Keri Bruce or your favorite Rimon lawyer, all of whom will be happy to help.

IAPP Privacy Presentation – Is the Wizard of Oz Still Behind the Curtain?

On May 10, 2012, I had the privilege of making a presentation at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium 2012. The title of my presentation was "Social and Mobile and Clouds, Oh My!" and it addressed some of the emerging issues in privacy, data protection and surveillance that arise as a result of globalizing technology and the convergence of social media, mobile marketing and cloud computing.

As part of that presentation (and as I have started to do for some time now in other presentations), I raised the issue of how lawyers, the law, legislators and regulators often use words to describe activities – words rooted in tradition or precedent – that are no longer applicable to the activity in today’s world. "Privacy" is such a word, although "not applicable" perhaps is too harsh. Obviously the word has significant applicability in a wide variety of situations. But "invasion of privacy" has become a knee-jerk reaction to virtually every information-gathering activity, even information readily and publicly available and, in some cases, posted, disclosed or distributed by the very individual whose privacy is alleged to have been "invaded."

Please feel free to download a PDF of my presentation, "Social and Mobile and Clouds, Oh My!" [PDF] (Note: Embedded video file sizes are too large to include), and let’s start a conversation about how we use words and how they wind up in laws and regulations. Lawyers work with words. Use them artfully and they provide powerful structures within which society, commerce and all forms of human endeavor function. Use them improperly and they cause confusion, uncertainty, inconsistency and inherently inequitable outcomes.

Seems like I am not the only one to point this out. Take a look at the insightful comments by John Montgomery, COO of GroupM Interaction, North America, as reported in a MediaPost RAW posting on Social Media entitled: If Marketing Terms Could Kill.

Kudos John. I’m with you. Let’s get it right.

FYI, Rimon has teams of lawyers who have experience and follow developments in privacy and data protection, information security and identity theft. If you want to know more, if you need counsel or need help navigating, or if you require legal representation in this or any other area, feel free to call me, Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum, or any of the Rimon lawyers with whom you regularly work.

Gift Card Issuers Fight & Switch

Back in August 2010, Legal Bytes reported that a New Jersey law applicable to abandoned property (escheat) would effectively alter the tenor and scope of the New Jersey gift card law (see, Gift Cards in New Jersey: It’s Complicated!).

Well today, in an Associated Press article published by ABC News Internet Ventures. Yahoo! – ABC News Network, it is being reported that American Express, which was already pursuing its legal rights and remedies in a law suit filed to overturn the law, has now opted to pull gift cards from retail sale in New Jersey.

The new law would require sellers in New Jersey to capture the ZIP code of everyone who buys a gift card. Monies left on those gift cards bought in New Jersey that lie dormant and unused after two years would then ostensibly be required to escheat to the state. After the law was passed about two years ago, American Express (joining forces with the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association and others), filed suit challenging the new law. Initially, a U.S. District Court issued an injunction against implementing it, but more recently the injunction was removed – perhaps the stimulus for the reported move by American Express.

If you have been coming back to Legal Bytes to keep up with this and other developments in the law of Advertising Technology & Media (“ATM”), you know that Keri Bruce in Rimon’s ATM practice group previously posted a report entitled Gift Cards Tag Along with Credit Card Legislation, noting that federal legislative and regulatory requirements will soon apply to gift cards. You will also see links to a U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart (Updated), which those of you who work with gift cards and similar financial payment instruments may find helpful; and you already know we follow and advise clients in this area all the time, assisted by a team of financial services regulatory specialists as well.

So if you need help from lawyers who know this area and can provide experienced, practical counsel, contact Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum or Keri Bruce, or your favorite Rimon lawyer, all of whom will be happy to help.

Taxing Storm Clouds Gather Over Utah

In June 2010, we announced the launch of an initiative focusing on Cloud Computing (‘Transcending the Cloud’ – Rimon Announces White Paper Series & Legal Initiative on Cloud Computing), showcased with a series of individual and topical white papers, in time being compiled into a comprehensive work entitled, “Transcending the Cloud: A Legal Guide to the Risks and Rewards of Cloud Computing.” One of the first in our series was a paper on the state tax implications of cloud computing, entitled: “Pennies From Heaven”

Just as clouds have different shapes, sizes and shades of gray, different states are approaching taxation of cloud transactions differently. Well now, our State Tax practice reports that taxing storm clouds are gathering over Utah. In a marked about-face from the state’s previously issued guidance, the Utah Sales Tax Commission has ruled that web services that charge a fee constitute sale of a service, subject to sales tax. The implication being that mere access of or to an application is enough to subject the provider to a tax liability.

Notable for cloud computing providers, even though the product at issue was access to remotely hosted software that allowed users to conduct webinars "in the cloud," allowing customers to download a free device application for access to that service had the state seeing "software" (sales of which are subject to sales tax in Utah). With at least one state looking at clouds from the application side now, it will be interesting to see if other states quickly follow.

For more information about the Utah ruling, or to stay on top of the developments in the taxation cloud products and platforms, visit www.taxingtech.com. To get legal assistance and guidance from someone who really knows that state of state taxation of cloud computing, contact Kelley C. Miller directly. Of course, you can always find out more about our Cloud Computing initiative or get the assistance you need by contacting me, Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum, or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.

German Court Requires Facebook to About Face

This post was written by Katharina Weimer.

A German Court thinks it may be time to de-friend Facebook. On 6 March 2012, the Regional Court in Berlin took a rare opportunity to rule on several features available on the social media platform Facebook, and not surprisingly opined that Facebook needs to provide more transparency and ask for consent when using users’ information. Worded in the form of consents, the German Court held:

  • Consent No. 1: Facebook may no longer make available one of its most used features, the “friend finder,” without proper information of the user and consent of the user’s contacts who are invited to join Facebook via email
  • Consent No. 2: The exploitation of user content that is protected by intellectual property rights requires affirmative and specific user consent. The language purporting to grant Facebook a comprehensive, worldwide, royalty-free license that is incorporated into Facebook’s existing terms of use is not sufficient.
  • Consent No. 3: Facebook needs to reword its consent regarding the use of personal data for advertising purposes

Although the judgment is technically not legally binding as yet, Facebook announced it will carefully review the consequences and consider legal remedies once the judgment is available in full length. This decision may lead the way to more transparency and user control over social media and the use of information in Germany. Having a world of information at your fingertips and incorporating user content in Web 2.0 services is a great tool for user interaction and learning more about them, but the court’s ruling suggests that Facebook not forget for whom their service was created – the users, not the advertisers. As Facebook edges closer to an IPO and looks to monetize its services and features, the German Court’s view is that Facebook needs to continue to give its users control over their content and information. Stay tuned to Legal Bytes for more details as the court proceedings continue.

Vielen dank (many thanks) to Katharina Weimer for the insights and the update. If you need legal or regulatory counsel, contact Katharina directly, or you can always contact me, Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum, or the Rimon lawyer with whom you regularly work.

White House Releases Privacy Report and Calls For a Consumer Bill of Rights

Earlier today, Secretary of Commerce John Bryson and Federal Trade Commission Chairman John Liebowitz outlined the Obama administration’s strategy for ensuring “consumers’ trust in the technologies and companies that drive the digital economy.” On the heels of their announcement, and although it is dated January 2012, the Department of Commerce released a long-awaited report entitled “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World, A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy,” the administration’s roadmap for privacy legislation and regulation in the years ahead.

The announcement and privacy blueprint envisions a comprehensive and integrated framework for data protection, rather than the current sector-patchwork-quilt approach, and is comprised of four key pillars: (1) a consumer privacy bill of rights; (2) a multi-stakeholder process and approach dealing with how such a bill of rights would apply in a business context; (3) more effective enforcement; and (4) greater commitment to harmonization and cooperation in the international community.

The Report outlines the seven principles of its proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and, although calling for legislation and regulation to codify and memorialize these rights, also sets out consumer privacy standards that companies are asked to immediately and voluntarily adopt in a cooperative public-private partnership. These seven principles are:

  1. Individual Control Through Choice
  2. Greater Transparency
  3. Respect for Context
  4. Secure Handling
  5. Access & Correction Rights
  6. Focused Collection
  7. Accountability

The Report notes that a company’s adherence to the voluntary codes will be viewed favorably by the FTC in any investigation or enforcement action for unfair and deceptive trade practices. By implication, a company that does not adopt and follow these principles might be used as evidence of a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, even if federal legislation is not passed on the subject. The FTC is expected to soon release its Final Staff Report on Consumer Privacy that will be consistent with the Obama administration’s proposed Framework Report. The report reinforces the administration’s commitment to international harmonization, and also touches upon the role state attorneys general in the United States can play. While we are still reviewing the details – and more will likely be forthcoming from the administration in the weeks and months ahead – Legal Bytes will keep you on top of these developments as they arise.

You can read the entire report right here: Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World, A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.

These are developments that affect all businesses, domestic and multi-national, global and local, consumers and regulators. The complexity and challenges of compliance should not be underestimated, nor should the administration’s commitment to follow the roadmap outlined. Rimon has teams of lawyers who have experience and follow developments in privacy and data protection, from prevention and policy to compliance and implementation. If you want to know more, need counsel, need help navigating, or if you require legal representation in this or any other area, feel free to call me, Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum, or any of the Rimon lawyers with whom you regularly work.

Robocop Fights Robocalling

In the 1987 film "Robocop", directed by Paul Verhoeven, a terminally wounded cop returns to the police force as a powerful cyborg, albeit with haunting memories, to fight crime and evil. Fast-forward to 2012 and "robo calling."

One of the government’s main consumer cops, the Federal Communications Commission, has acted to tighten rules regarding the use of so-called "robo calling" (ok, it’s auto-dialing systems). The FCC’s official order has not been released, but the following is clear:

  • Express written consumer consent in advance will be required before using an autodialer or prerecorded message
  • You can no longer rely on an "established business relationship" as an exception to the prior written consent requirement
  • Each robocall must include an automated opt-out mechanism
  • Rules governing abandoned or "dead air" calls will be tightened

When the final regulations and order designating the effective date and detailing precisely how these rules will be applied are released, we’ll bring you the news; but in the meantime, you can read more about the FCC’s action and its thinking right here: FCC Approves Order to Tighten Regulatory Treatment of Robocalls Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

As always, if you need legal or regulatory counsel, call me, Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum, or any of the lawyers highlighted in the full client alert, or, of course, the Rimon lawyer with whom you regularly work.

Stealing Limelight from Hollywood, California Shines the Light on Privacy

California’s Shine the Light Act, California Civil Code 1798.83, responded to the perceived need for transparency and provides consumers certain rights in connection with how businesses share information about California residents for purposes related to direct marketing. The regulatory team at Rimon has prepared a Rimon Shine the Light Act Reference Guide; and while the Act doesn’t apply to every business, if it does apply, liability may be as high as $3,000 per violation. You can view the entire blog posting on our sister GRE Law Blog.

As always, if you need guidance from lawyers who have experience and resources aligned to deal with these issues, call me, Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum; any of the lawyers highlighted in the posting; or, of course, the Rimon lawyer with whom you regularly work.