Welcome to our fortnightly newsletter, where our reporters Kruttika Lokesh and Dhananjay Dhonchak put together handpicked stories from the world of tech law! You can find other issues here.
Private firm blocked from buying “.org” domain
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the internet naming system, decided on 30 April to veto the sale of the rights to the “.org” domain to private equity firm Ethos Capital, which had offered more than $1 billion in a bid to purchase the domain. Approving the sale would have meant handing over a piece of online real estate that house most of the world’s non-profit organizations and charities, and ICANN’s decision was widely hailed as a victory for free speech over the internet. This is despite the promises made by Ethos Capital, which stated that it would set up a “stewardship council” of outside experts and make “public interest commitments” to restrain price increases. The decision was announced by ICANN Chairman Maarten Botterman, who stated that the decision turned on the whether the spirit of dot-org would be preserved if the private equity firm gained control of the domain.
- Steve Lohr, “A Private Equity Firm Is Blocked From Buying .Org”, The New York Times (May 1, 2020).
- Karl Bode, The .Org Domain Will No Longer Be Sold to Private Equity Vultures, Vice (May 1, 2020).
- Jamshed Avari, ICANN Blocks .org Domain Sale: Why This Matters, in Ten Points, NDTV (May 1, 2020).
Facebook buys $5.7 billion stake in Reliance Jio
On 22 April, Facebook announced that it was investing $5.7 billion in Reliance Jio. As part of the investment Facebook said that it would collaborate with Jio to create new ways for people and businesses to operate more effectively in the growing digital economy. In the press note, Facebook noted the potential of the partnership, stating that “…by bringing together JioMart, Jio’s small business initiative, with the power of WhatsApp, we can enable people to connect with businesses, shop and ultimately purchase products in a seamless mobile experience.” Facebook’s investment translates to a 9.99% equity stake in Jio platform on a fully diluted basis. This is the largest investment for a minority stake by a tech company in an Indian firm. This is also the largest foreign direct investment (FDI) for a minority investment in India. The deal marks a rare coming together of two giants who have a reputation for market domination. Such a broad sweep of an alliance naturally triggers concerns about market dominance which will reportedly be addressed by the Competition Commission of India.
- Pankaj Doval, “Facebook-Jio Platforms: Competition panel needs to clear deal”, Times Of India (April 23, 2020).
- Arindrajit Basu & Amber Sinha, “The Realpolitik of the Reliance Jio-Facebook Deal”, The Diplomat (April 29, 2020).
- Rahul Matthan, “The Jio-Facebook deal and our need for a privacy law”, Livemint (April 28, 2020).
- Jaspreet Bindra, “We can mark the day that data actually became the new oil”, Livemint (April 30, 2020).
Cryptocurrency firm Ripple files lawsuit against YouTube over fake “giveaway” videos
Blockchain firm Ripple sued Alphabet Inc’s YouTube on Tuesday, alleging that the video-sharing platform failed to protect consumers from cryptocurrency “giveaway” scams that uses fake social media profiles to dupe victims into sending money. According to a court filing, the company alleges that YouTube has failed to restrict the circulation of videos where scammers are baiting viewers into sending thousands of dollars’ worth of XRP (a cryptocurrency championed by Ripple) by imitating the company and CEO Brad Garlinghouse. The scammers promise to send back up to 5 million XRP, worth nearly $1 million, but victims who participate in the fake “giveaways” never receive any money in return, said the filing. The lawsuit appears poised to raise a fresh challenge around the controversial Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields Google, Facebook and other internet companies from liability for material that users post on their platforms. Regulators in Washington are reconsidering the need for the law’s broad immunity, which helped U.S. tech companies grow but is viewed increasingly as a shelter enabling some of the world’s richest companies to avoid investments to curb crime, extremism and misinformation online.
- Jeff John Roberts, “YouTube sued by crypto firm Ripple over scam videos, in major challenge to tech giant”, Fortune (April 21, 2020).
- Adi Robertson, “Cryptocurrency company sues YouTube for letting scammers impersonate its CEO”, The Verge (April 21, 2020).
- Casey Newton, “A new lawsuit against YouTube shows how hard it is to get the company to respond to abuse”, The Verge (April 22, 2020).
- Robert Stevens, “Ripple CTO kicked off YouTube a week after lawsuit”, Decrypt (April 29, 2020).
Public Access to Information Suffers Under Coronavirus in the US
Amid the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, which by some counts has infected more than 50 thousand people in the US, shops and restaurants are not the only operations shutting down. Across the country, local, state, and federal agencies have slowed their responses to public records requests to a crawl. While some agencies face tricky logistical challenges because of how records are kept, others have added new barriers that don’t seem directly related to the pandemic. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has stopped processing electronic records requests, the bureau now requires that requests be sent via postal mail. The State Department meanwhile has gone further, suspending Freedom of Information/Privacy Act operations entirely until further notice. The city of Philadelphia has entered a state of emergency in which all “nonessential” city government operations have been halted, including the processing of public records requests. Other agencies including the Fresno city government; the Hawaii state Judiciary; the Chicago Police Department and the Jefferson Parish Department of General Services have similarly notified persons that responses to their requests are on hold indefinitely due to the country’s public health crisis.
- Colin Lecher, “States Are Suspending Public Records Access Due to COVID-19”, The Markup (May 1, 2020).
- Staff, “Press freedom and government transparency during COVID-19”, Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press (Daily Updated Tracker).
- Mica Soellner, “Coronavirus pandemic leads federal government and states to suspend access to public records”, Washington Examiner (May 4, 2020).
COVID-19 data processing deal between Kerala and data analytics platform Sprinklr comes under heavy scrutiny
Amid the coronavirus pandemic the Kerala government has been forced to grapple with questions of privacy and data security owing to its deal with US-based big data company Sprinklr. The government, which has been praised for its adept handling of the pandemic, has nevertheless come under heavy scrutiny following the deal, with Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala criticizing the government for breaching the privacy of people under quarantine. The deal with Sprinklr which allegedly gives the company access to the state’s COVID-19 data, though the government continues to hold the proprietary rights over personal health information of citizens that was collected by field workers. The matter was recently heard by the Kerala High Court which issued preliminary orders declining to interfere with the company’s involvement in processing patient data. However, the Court advised the government to adhere to concerns of privacy and data security, though the state has emphasized its proprietary right over the data and has disclaimed the threat of monetization owing to its ownership.
- Special Correspondent, UDF seeks CBI probe into Sprinklr deal, The Hindu (22 April 2020).
- Nithin Ramakrishnan, ‘Sprinklr’ Deal And Personal Data Protection Bill, LiveLaw (22 April 2020).
- Chandrakanth Viswanath, Explainer | How The Sprinklr Row Put Kerala Govt in Hot Water after Flattening Covid-19 Curve, News18 (21 April 2020).