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Wearable Technologies Push Legal Frontiers

When I was a kid, I remember electric blankets were all the rage. However, after reports of these blankets causing fires, they quickly became a thing of the past. A few years ago, after Google Glass emerged, I couldn’t help but think of the electric blanket—an interesting, novel product, but with a slew of potential legal troubles that may ultimately leave owners getting burned. As it would turn out, Google Glass was merely the tip of the iceberg for the revolution of wearable technology. However, it seems as though concerns over the potential problems of these wearable technologies is entirely warranted. wearable technology

What Is Wearable Technology?

While it may seem like an obvious question, it deserves a bit of an explanation. “Wearable technology” describes clothing or accessories, such as a bracelet or glasses, which utilize computer technology that gives the wear some heightened sense of practicality. An early example of this is a calculator watch. In addition to giving the person the ability to tell time, they could calculate tips or other simple math equations on the fly.

The most talked-about wearable technology is Google Glass. You wear Google Glass just like any other set of glasses, except instead of polarization and UV protection, these glasses offer people the ability to surf the web, check the weather, read text messages, and even make photographs and record video in 720p.

“Smart watches” are also receiving an increasing amount of attention. These devices are similar to calculator watches, in the sense that they keep time in addition to other functions. Where they differ is that rather than just compute numbers (which they can still do), these watches also operate as .mp3 and FM radio players, cameras, GPS navigation systems, and even as a cell phones. Wristband devices can also monitor your heart rate, sleep quality, and how many calories you burned.

Clothing companies have even started entered the wearable technology field. What some of these “clothes”—if you can call them that—can do is astonishing. For instance, BB.Suit has designed a piece of clothing that makes the wearer a walking WiFi hotspot, Studio Roosegaarde has crafted a type of high-fashion dress that becomes ‘see-thru’ as the person’s heart rate increases, and there has even been talk of companies testing prototypes of clothes that can harness solar power.

Why Is Wearable Technology a Legal Concern?

Wearable technologies have the potential for causing serious privacy violations. For example, those equipped with an app called “Winky” could use Google Class trigger the camera mechanism with the blink of an eye. This not only raises concerns over privacy, but also sparks an interesting issue with various wiretapping laws.

Private establishments have every right to maintain some manner of control over the conduct of people entering their premises. Shortly after the first Google Glasses started popping in the San Francisco Bay Area, many establishments began posting signs that asked wearers to remove their glasses before entering due to privacy concerns of other customers. Casinos in Las Vegas have banned them outright.

Law enforcement has been having trouble regulating the use of Google Glass. In October of 2013, a San Diego woman was ticketed for wearing her glass while driving. Ultimately, the case was thrown due to a lack of evidence that the glasses were actually on and in use while the woman was behind the wheel. But the statement was already made: Don’t Google and drive. In other parts of the country, legislatures have made efforts to get the Google Glass put in the same category as a cellular phone.

Smart watches pose many of the same problems as Google Glass. If glasses are causing a ruckus by being able to send texts, access the Internet, and capture images in the wink of an eye, it is not unreasonable to see how the exact same privacy concerns arise over a watch that can do the exact same thing with the flick of a wrist. Similarly, using smart watches to text and talk while driving will force legislatures and law enforcement alike to figure out ways to control the use of these devices, many of which look like normal wrist watches.

Aside from criminal issues, there are also concerns over health and safety. “Fitbit,” who manufacture an athletic wristband, recalled one of its models after users began to complain of skin irritation. As the popularity of wearable technology grows, so will the lawsuits over design defects and harm caused by them.

The Legal Community Should Encourage Innovation

Regardless of the potential legal problems the legal community, it is exciting to see how much technology has grown in the last twenty years. If watches that double as phones and temperature regulated jackets are today’s hot item, it’s mind boggling to think of what type of gadgetry the next twenty years will bring us. When developing laws to regulate new technologies, the legal community should be careful to not impede future innovations.

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Bitcoin: What It Is and Why You Should Care

Whenever I hear the word “coin,” I can’t help but picture Scrooge McDuck diving into a swimming pool full of gold, or think of old arcades and a handful of tokens. Perhaps the creators of Bitcoin had this in mind when they named their company.

Banks Warn Of Bitcoin RisksSo, What Is Bitcoin?

These days, everything is on the Internet. In 2009, a software developer decided that money should be too. But this isn’t money in the cold hard cash sense, or even in a less tangible sense, like your credit limit. Instead, Bitcoin uses a cryptographic protocol, or a long string of numbers, to identify each piece of currency.

How Does It Work?

Traditional currency (i.e. paper money and metal coins) is circulated by governments. Bitcoin, on the other hand, does not rely on the banks or the powers that be. Bitcoins are created through “mining,” a process where computers running Bitcoin software essentially solve very complex math equations – specifically, encrypted transactions of other Bitcoin users. Once one of these “problems” is solved, it will be logged into a “block chain” which publicly records the transaction, and rewards the problem solver (or solvers) with newly minted bitcoins.

Put simply, Bitcoin is a program that enables users to use its digital currency to exchange goods, services, or whatever their heart desires. This transaction is then recorded with Bitcoin, which is added to a block sequence that can be mined to create more bitcoins. It is akin to interest or transaction fees, but without actually really being interest or transaction fees…if that makes any sense.

Think of it this way: just as paper money has a serial number, bitcoins receive a specific identifying sequence of numbers. The main difference between the two is that one is regulated by the government and banks, and the other is created almost solely by the people.

Why Should I Care?

Bitcoin has been skyrocketing in popularity. Some traditional businesses, such as coffee shops, have started taking it as payment, and there is even news of Bitcoin ATMs cropping up to allow the basic consumer to buy bitcoins at market rate with their cash.

Right, the market value. In 2011, a mere two years after their creation, the digital currency jumped from a rate of $0.30 to $32. It then slipped back down to $2, only to skyrocket in 2013 to upwards of $266. As of today, a single bitcoin is worth about $517.

Make no mistake, Bitcoin is a volatile, high risk investment (in fact, that figure jumped between 515.2 – 518.2 in the 10 seconds I took to confirm the value). But as an alternative to traditional currency, at least for now, it is certainly worth its weight in gold.

Sounds Too Good to Be True. What’s the Catch?

Back before globalization, when the seas were the gateway to the world, gold, silver, and gems were currency, along with spices and fine silks. Essentially, if someone saw value in it, it could be traded for something else of value, like food or a home. And where there was value, there were individuals seeking to exploit other people’s hard-earned livelihood.

Well, the same is true with Bitcoin, but think “Pirates of the Caribbean” only with hackers instead of Johnny Depp. This has resulted in individuals hijacking other individual’s computers processing power through trojans to mine for bitcoins.

Bitcoin has also been linked to illegal gambling or as an exchange for illicit substances via black market websites. For example, in November of 2013, the FBI seized bitcoins from a black market website that were valued at $28.5 million at the time.

The most common problem facing Bitcoin is plain and simple theft. As you’ll remember, each bitcoin is unique. Just like money that was taken from a wallet, if a bitcoin is taken from the owner’s “wallet,” that bitcoin is gone and probably cannot be traced. Most bitcoin theft occurs when a user’s private key to his online wallet is stolen from a payment processor.

Furthermore, and maybe the most worrisome, is the stability and longevity of this unregulated currency. For example, as of yesterday, February 23, 2014, the world’s largest Bitcoin trading site was taken offline. Just before the website went offline, the trading company’s CEO resigned. This type of erratic behavior of platforms where millions of cryptocurrency is changing hands makes some economists and investors wary to give Bitcoin and similar forms of currency their stamp of approval. However, others view it as typical industry evolution that will force bad companies out of the market.

The Future of Digital Currency

Forms of alternative currency are nothing new, but Bitcoin was the first of its kind, and appears to be in it for the long run. Since its inception in 2009, at least seven other cryptocurrencies have shown up onto the marketplace. While volatile and risky, this gives users the ability to choose an alternative to traditional money.

And if you really think about it, considering exchange rates, the fluctuating value of the dollar, and an unstable economy, traditional currency may not be the solid gold standard people once believed it to be.

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Uber: Tech Company of the Year Sparks Legal Controversies

Since 2009, Uber, Inc. has provided fast, affordable, and tech savvy transportation services in major cities. In 2013, Uber was recognized as tech company of the year by a writer for USA Today. However, despite its success, Uber has also sparked a number of legal controversies amongst both cab companies and Uber driver employees.

UBERappWhat Is Uber?

If you’re unfamiliar, Uber is a new cab-like company that allows users to summon cabs with the push of a button on their smart-phone. The app then enables users to tracks the ride as it approaches, rate the driver, and automatically pays for the ride with whatever credit card the user has on file.

As an extra-bonus to users, the Uber app automatically includes gratuity in the cost of the ride and drivers are not permitted to accept extra cash tips.

Why Are Cab Companies Mad?

Cab companies and taxi drivers are mad because, currently, Uber rides are not subject to the same extensive city regulations as cab companies. This saves Uber the cost of regulation compliance and allows Uber to beat out cab companies with cheaper rates.

The reason for this is “cab companies” are generally regulated by cities while “pre-arranged car services” are only subject to state regulations – which tend to be comparatively minimal.

The main distinction between the two similar services is whether or not the ride can be flagged down on the street. Here, Uber currently still qualifies as a pre-arranged car service because Uber rides can only be summoned via app.

What Regulations Apply to Uber?

In California, the Public Utilities Commission recently adopted a new set of rules for Uber that are similar to those for limousine companies.

These regulations include driver background checks, car safety checks, training programs, and zero-tolerance for drug and alcohol use by drivers. Still, these regulations don’t match up to city regulations of cab companies.

Why Are Uber Drivers Mad?

Recently, Uber also began taking heat from its own drivers. Several months ago, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the drivers citing a number of complaints, including that many Uber drivers don’t enjoy employee status, and that Uber unlawfully skims Uber driver’s tips.

Here, Uber makes money by taking a percentage of the gross proceeds billed by Uber drivers. The Uber drivers are then paid the remaining amount, but are still accountable for their own gas, insurance, and car maintenance.

  • Employee Status Issue

Uber classifies many of its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. As result, Uber saves itself many of the costs and responsibilities associated with employees, including not having to pay for employee gas, insurance, and car maintenance.

However, depending on the actual relationship between Uber and its drivers, the law may step-in and declare that the drivers are employees regardless of how Uber wishes to classify them. When determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor, courts will look to a number of factors regarding the autonomy of the worker from the employer.

  • Tip Skimming Issue

When Uber takes a percentage of each bill, this includes a percentage of the “gratuity” calculated into the tab. Under most state labor laws, employers are prohibited from sharing in any portion of an employee’s tips. However, this rule only applies if the gratuity actually qualifies as a customer’s “tip” to the driver.

Tips are defined as money a customer leaves for an employee over the amount due.  Here, Uber customers aren’t given any option whether or not to pay the included gratuity amount. However, Uber also specifically tells riders that gratuity is included and prohibits drivers from accepting additional cash tips.

Here, because tips are customary in the ride-industry and because Uber restricts customers from tipping outside the required gratuity, I’ll place my bets on the Uber drivers winning this argument and receiving their full share of tips.

What Does this Mean for Uber Riders?

There is certainly merit to the claims made by both cab companies and Uber drivers. However, if either group’s claims are successful, it will increase the company’s cost of operation and may lead to increased fares for Uber rides.

Still, Uber and similar companies like Lyft are paving the way for the future of public street transportation. As time progresses, the law will surely have to catch-up and figure out how best to regulate the operation of this new industry

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Make Way for Corporations at the Pews

Corporations and the Freedom to Express Religious Beliefs 

Anybody enjoy In-N-Out Burger? If you look at the bottom of an In-N-Out wrapper or drink cup, you’ll find a reference to a Biblical verse, with the name of a book and a chapter number.

Does In-N-Out have the constitutional right to put such references on the bottom of their cups? That’s somewhat of a trick question, since constitutional law only applies to government action, not private action. The real question is whether government can pass a law restricting In-N-Out’s ability to do so. There are actually two possible answers. First, the owners of the company, the Snyder Family, have the right to express religion. The second, and more relevant answer, is that In-N-Out itself has the right to freely express religion.

In-n-out-bible-reference

The distinction between owner and corporation is an important one. If In-N-Out has the right to freely express religious beliefs, then for-profit corporations have the right to express religious beliefs. Why is this important? For starters, it is the quickest way out of Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. I’m not saying In-N-Out plans to deny its employees birth control, but other companies owned or controlled by religious Presidents or CEOs are currently pressing this exact issue in the courts.

Should Corporations Have Religious Rights?

The circuit courts are divided on the idea that corporations have religious rights, which means one of the cases is a shoe-in for Supreme Court review. The 10th Circuit endorsed corporate rights to religion, but limited the idea to “closely held family businesses” like Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. The limitation was a result of the difficulty in determining whether a corporation actually believed the religious views it was expressing. The circuit court panel could see no distinction between incorporated businesses and unincorporated businesses owned by individuals, at least with regards to free speech. From this jumping point, corporations, at least ones like Hobby Lobby, could also express religious beliefs.

The 10th Circuit might be confident it can confine the monster it has created to family held businesses, but the distinction between family held corporations and publicly owned corporations is a thin one. Family members have disagreements all the time. Disagreements between family are often more bitter than disagreements with people outside the family. It is just as difficult to determine whether each family member owning the corporation holds the same sincerely held religious belief as it is to determine whether each stockholder has the same sincerely held religious beliefs.

If corporations have religious rights, Obamacare will be the first, but not the last religious exemption granted. Tax breaks meant for churches might be used by corporations. Employment discrimination laws could be more easily bypassed. Most importantly, this opens the door to corporations obtaining other fundamental rights, such as the right to vote. Let’s just hope the courts don’t recognize a corporate Second Amendment right to bear arms.

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Internet Taxes – New Highway for Expansion of Federal Power

When Amazon.com opened in 1995, it offered numerous advantages to consumers. These advantages included the ability to purchase products without leaving home, and an exemption from state sales tax. Of course, the exemption existed due to the way most state tax laws were worded: only businesses with a physical presence in the state were taxed. Although many states have attempted to close their loopholes, businesses from outside the states selling products into the states remain immune. Congress now wants to pass a bill which would address this tax issue.

The Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA) would allow states to collect sales taxes from online retailers which are located outside the state. The MFA would exempt businesses which make less than $1 million annually in online sales from its provisions. The MFA exemption is a concession to small businesses which would be hindered by such artificial price increases. Given that the Republican Party opposes most taxes, the MFA is credit card buying onlinereceiving a surprising amount of bi-partisan support. MFA proponents claim that new taxes are not being created, but that old taxes are being enforced. The central idea behind the MFA is that physical retail stores are being hammered by online retail stores and that taxing online businesses would restore fairness by increasing prices on products from online businesses.

The MFA is a textbook example of politicians manipulating the American tax code. The purpose of the MFA is to preserve physical retail stores. Obviously Congress cannot simply mandate Americans to shop in physical stores rather than go online, but Congress can levy taxes which would affect prices. These price changes would either make physical store prices more attractive or at least make online and store prices the same. The tax code has hundreds of similar provisions, each designed to encourage Americans to act in a certain way. Whether it is marriage, purchasing a house, or buying hybrid cars, Congress subtly pushes citizens into making certain decisions. The use of the tax code as a social engineering device, however, has also made the tax code perplexingly complex.

The use of the tax code as a means to influence social behavior has led to more expansion of federal power, power which violates individual and state rights. The recent Supreme Court case involving Obamacare highlights the danger of the tax code towards individual rights. One of the reasons Chief Justice Roberts could call Obamacare’s individual mandate a tax is that taxes already act like mandates. Mandates can be taxes because our taxes can be mandates. Saying that a tax forces a person to buy from a physical store rather than online sounds absurd, but changing the prices changes the decision-making of the individual. Assuming rationality, the individual will always make the choice that the tax code wants them to make by purchasing the least expensive item.

Proponents of the MFA will say that the status quo influenced individuals into buying from online retails rather than physical stores. The MFA, in the eyes of its supporters, actually restores the freedom of choice by applying the tax to everyone rather than disadvantaging one method of commerce over another.

The problem is that online retail has advantages that physical stores do not and these advantages will naturally cause consumers to favor shopping from the internet over walking into an actual store. Being able to buy an item anywhere at any time is a tremendous boon to the consumer. Being able to compare prices at multiple stores without wasting time and gas is also a significant advantage that online retail enjoys over physical stores. Tinkering with taxes is a weak attempt to prop up a model of business that is going extinct. Granted, many consumers will often walk into a store, check out the item, than purchase online because the product online is cheaper. However, this typically happens when the business in question operates both a brick and mortar store as well as a website; the price difference in that situation comes not from taxes, but the businesses own decision to promote the same items online at a cheaper price.

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