Sunday, August 12, 2018
We’re a month away from our second annual Business Law Professor Blog CLE, hosted at the University of Tennessee on Friday, September 14, 2018. We’ll discuss our latest research and receive comments from UT faculty and students. I’ve entitled my talk Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management, and will blog more about that after I finish the article. This is a really long post, but it’s chock full of helpful links for novices and experts alike and highlights some really interesting work from our colleagues at other law schools.
Two weeks ago, I posted some resources to help familiarize you with blockchain. Here’s a relatively simple definition from John Giordani at Forbes:
Blockchain is a public register in which transactions between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable and permanent way. The data relating to the exchanges are saved inside cryptographic blocks, connected in a hierarchical manner to each other. This creates an endless chain of data blocks -- hence the name blockchain -- that allows you to trace and verify all the transactions you have ever made. The primary function of a blockchain is, therefore, to certify transactions between people. In the case of Bitcoin, the blockchain serves to verify the exchange of cryptocurrency between two users, but it is only one of the many possible uses of this technological structure. In other sectors, the blockchain can certify the exchange of shares and stocks, operate as if it were a notary and "validate" a contract or make the votes cast in online voting secure and impossible to alter. One of the greatest advantages of the blockchain is the high degree of security it guarantees. In fact, once a transaction is certified and saved within one of the chain blocks, it can no longer be modified or tampered with. Each block consists of a pointer that connects it to the previous block, a timestamp that certifies the time at which the event actually took place and the transaction data.
These three elements ensure that each element of the blockchain is unique and immutable -- any request to modify the timestamp or the content of the block would change all subsequent blocks. This is because the pointer is created based on the data in the previous block, triggering a real chain reaction. In order for any alterations to happen, it would be necessary for the 50%-plus-one of the network to approve the change: a possible but hardly feasible operation since the blockchain is distributed worldwide between millions of users.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, here are links to a few of my favorite videos for novices. These will help you understand the rest of this blog post.
- Blockchain Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty
- 19 Industries That Blockchain Will Disrupt
- How Blockchain is Changing Money and Business
To help prepare for my own talk in Tennessee, I attended a fascinating discussion at SEALS on Thursday moderated by Dean Jon Garon of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law called Blockchain Technology and the Law.
For those of you who don’t know how blockchain technology can relate to your practice or teaching, I thought I would provide a few questions raised by some of the speakers. I’ve inserted some (oversimplified)links for definitions. The speakers did not include these links, so if I have used one that you believe is incomplete or inaccurate, do not attribute it to them.
Del started the session by talking about the legal issues in blockchain consensus models. He described consensus models as the backbones for users because they: 1) allow users to interact with each other in a trustless manner; 2) ensure the integrity of the ledger in both normal and adversarial situations; and 3) create a “novel variety of networks with extraordinary potential” if implemented correctly. He discussed both permissioned (e.g. Ripple) and permissionless (Bitcoin) systems and how they differ. He then explained Proof of Work blockchains supported by miners (who solve problems to add blocks to the blockchain) and masternodes (who provide the backbone support to the blockchain). He pointed out how blockchains can reduce agency costs and problems of asymmetrical information and then focused on their utility in financial markets, securities regulation, and corporate governance. Del compared the issues related to off-chain governance, where decisionmaking first takes place on a social level and is then actively encoded into the protocol by the developers (used by Bitcoin and Ethereum) to on-chain governance, where developers broadcast their improvement protocols on-chain and then, once approved, those improvements are implemented into the code. He closed by listing a number of “big unanswered issues” related to regulatory guidance, liability for the performance of the technology and choice of consensus, global issues, and GDPR and other data privacy issues.
Catherine wants to help judges think about smart contracts. She asked, among other things, how judges should address remedies, what counts as substantial performance, and how smart contract audits would work. She questioned whether judges should use a consumer protection approach or instead follow a draconian approach by embracing automation and enforcing smart contracts as drafted to discourage their adoption by those who are not sophisticated enough to understand how they work.
Tonya focuses on blockchain and intellectual property. Her talked raised the issues of non-fungible tokens generated through smart contracts and the internet of value. She used the example of cryptokitties, where players have the chance to collect and breed digital cats. She also raised the question of what kind of technology can avoid infringement. For more on how blockchain can disrupt copyright law, read her post here.
In case you didn’t have enough trust issues with blockchain and cryptocurrency, Rebecca’s presentation focused on the “halo of immutability” and asked a few central questions: 1) why should we trust the miners not to collude for a 51% attack 2) why should we trust wallets, which aren’t as secure as people think; and 3) why should we trust the consensus mechanism? In response, some members of the audience noted that blockchain appeals to a libertarian element because of the removal of the government from the conversation.
Professor Carla Reyes, Michigan State University College of Law- follow her on Twitter at Carla Reyes (@Prof_CarlaReyes);
Carla talked about crypto corporate governance and the potential fiduciary duties that come out of thinking of blockchains as public trusts or corporations. She explained that governance happens on and off of the blockchain mechanisms through social media outlets such as Redditt. She further noted that many of those who call themselves “passive economic participants” are actually involved in governance because they comment on improvement processes. She also noted the paradox that off chain governance doesn’t always work very well because participants don’t always agree, but when they do agree, it often leads to controversial results like hard forks. Her upcoming article will outline potential fiduciaries (miner and masternode operators for example), their duties, and when they apply. She also asked the provocative question of whether a hard fork is like a Revlon event.
As a former chief privacy officer, I have to confess a bias toward Charlotte’s presentation. She talked about blockchain in healthcare focusing on these questions: will gains in cybersecurity protection outweigh specific issues for privacy or other legal issues (data ownership); what are the practical implications of implementing a private blockchain (consortium, patient-initiated, regulatory-approved); can this apply to other needed uses, including medical device applications; how might this technology work over geographically diverse regulatory structures; and are there better applications for this technology (e.g. connected health devices)? She posited that blockchain could work in healthcare because it is decentralized, has increased security, improves access controls, is more impervious to unauthorized change, could support availability goals for ransomware attacks and other issues, is potentially interoperable, could be less expensive, and could be controlled by regulatory branch, consortium, and the patient. She closed by raising potential legal issues related to broad data sharing, unanswered questions about private implementations, privacy requirements relating to the obligation of data deletion and correction (GDPR in the EU, China’s cybersecurity law, etc); and questions of data ownership in a contract.
Eric closed by discussing the potential tax issue for hard forks. He explained that after a hard fork, a new coin is created, and asked whether that creates income because the owner had one entitlement and now has two pieces of ownership. He then asked whether hard forks are more like corporate reorganizations or spinoffs (which already have statutory taxation provisions) or rather analogous to a change of wealth. Finally, he asked whether we should think about these transactions like a contingent right to do something in the future and how that should be valued.
Stay tuned for more on these and other projects related to blockchain. I will be sure to post them when they are done. But, ignore blockchain at your peril. There’s a reason that IBM, Microsoft, and the State Department are spending money on this technology. If you come to UT on September 15th, I’ll explain how other companies, the UN, NASDAQ, and nation states are using blockchain beyond the cryptocurrency arena.
August 12, 2018 in Commercial Law, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching, Technology, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, May 9, 2016
[Please keep in mind as you read this post that my daughter is a Starbucks partner. Any pro-Starbucks bias in this post is unintended. But you should factor in my affiliation accordingly.]
Maybe it's just me, but the publicity around the recent suit against Starbucks for putting too much ice in their iced beverages made me think of Goldilocks and her reactions to that porridge, those chairs, and those beds. First it was McDonald's, where the coffee was too hot. Now it's Starbucks, where the coffee is too cold--or, more truthfully, is too watered down from frozen water . . . . (And apparently I missed a Starbucks suit earlier this year on under-filing lattes . . . .)
Different types of tort suits, I know. I always felt bad about the injury to the woman in the McDonald's case, although the fault issue was truly questionable. The recent Starbucks case just seems wrong in so many ways, however. This is a consumer dispute that is best addressed by other means. I admit to believing this most recent suit is actually an abuse of our court system.
How might a customer who is truly concerned about a substandard beverage attempt to remedy the wrong?
Friday, October 2, 2015
Today I will present on a panel with colleagues that spent a week with me this summer in Guatemala meeting with indigenous peoples, village elders, NGOs, union leaders, the local arm of the Chamber of Commerce, a major law firm, government officials, human rights defenders, and those who had been victimized by mining companies. My talk concerns the role of corporate social responsibility in Guatemala, but I will also discuss the complex symbiotic relationship between state and non-state actors in weak states that are rich in resources but poor in governance. I plan to use two companies as case studies.
The first corporate citizen, REPSA (part of the Olmeca firm), is a Guatemalan company that produces African palm oil. This oil is used in health and beauty products, ice cream, and biofuels, and because it causes massive deforestation and displacement of indigenous peoples it is also itself the subject of labeling legislation in the EU. REPSA is a signatory of the UN Global Compact, the world's largest CSR initiative. Despite its CSR credentials, some have linked REPSA with the assassination last month of a professor and activist who had publicly protested against the company's alleged pollution of rivers with pesticides. The "ecocide," that spread for hundreds of kilometers, caused 23 species of fish and 21 species of animals to die suddenly and made the water unsafe to drink. REPSA has denied all wrongdoing and has pledged full cooperation with authorities in the murder investigation. The murder occurred outside of a local court the day after the court ordered the closing of a REPSA factory. On the same day of the murder other human rights defenders were also allegedly kidnaped by REPSA operatives although they were later released. Guatemala's government is reportedly one of the most corrupt in the world-- the President resigned a few weeks ago and went to jail amidst a corruption scandal-- and thus it is no surprise that the government has allegedly done little to investigate either the ecocide or the murder.
The other case study concerns Tahoe, a Canadian mining company with a US subsidiary that used private security forces who shot seven protestors. Tahoe is facing trial in a Canadian court, a case that is being watched worldwide by the NGO community. Interestingly, the company's corporate social responsibility and the board's implementation are indirectly at issue in the case. Tahoe feels so strongly about CSR that it has a CSR blog and quarterly report online touting its implementation of international CSR standards, including its compliance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the Equator Principles (related to risk management for project finance in social risk projects), the IFC Performance Standards and a host of other initiatives related to grievance mechanisms for those seeking an access to remedy for human rights abuses. Tahoe is in fact a member of the CSR Committee of the International Bar Association. Nonetheless, despite these laudable achievements, none of the families that my colleagues and I met with in the mining town mentioned any of this nor talked about the "Cup of Coffee With the Mine" program promoted in the CSR report. Of course, it's possible that Tahoe has made significant reforms since the 2013 shootings and if so, then it should be applauded, but the families we met in June did not appear to give the company much credit. Instead they talked about the birth defects that their children have and the fact that they and their crops often go for days without water. They may not know the statistic, but some of the mining processes use the same amount of water in one hour that a family of four would use in 20 years.
Of note, the Guatemalan government only requires a 1% royalty for the minerals mined in the country rather than the 30% that other countries require, although legislation is pending to change this. Guatemala also provides its police and military as guards for the mines to protect the Canadian company from its own citizens. Guatemala probably helps shore up security because even though 98% of the local citizens voted against the mine, the mine commenced operations anyway despite both international and Guatemalan human rights law that requires free, prior, and informed consent (see here).
Given this turmoil, perhaps it was actually the more risky climate of mining in Guatemala that caused Goldcorp to sell a 26% stake in Tahoe earlier this year rather than the stated goal of focusing on core assets. Norway's pension fund had already divested in January due to Tahoe's human rights record in Guatemala. Maybe these investors hadn't read the impressive Tahoe CSR report. With the background provided above, my abstract for my book chapter and today's talk is below. I welcome your thoughts in the comment section or by email at email@example.com.
North Americans and Europeans have come to expect even small and medium sized enterprises to engage in some sort of corporate social responsibility (“CSR”). Large companies regularly market their CSR programs in advertising and recruitment efforts, and indeed over twenty countries require companies to publicly report on their environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) efforts. Definitions differ, but some examples may be instructive for this Chapter. For example, the Danish government, which mandates ESG reporting, defines CSR as “considerations for human rights, societal, environmental and climate conditions as well as combatting corruption in … business strategy and corporate activities.” The United States government, which focuses on responsible business conduct, has explained, “CSR entails conduct consistent with applicable laws and internationally recognised standards. Based on the idea that you can do well while doing no harm, RBC is a broad concept that focuses on two aspects of the business-society relationship: 1) the positive contribution businesses can make to economic, environmental, and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development, and 2) avoiding adverse impacts and addressing them when they do occur.”
Business must not only have a legal license to operate in a country, they must also have a social license. In other words, the community members, employees, government officials, and those affected by the corporate activities—the stakeholders—must believe that the business is legitimate. It is no longer enough to merely be legally allowed to conduct business. Corporate social responsibility activities can thus often add a veneer of “legitimacy.”
With this in mind, what role does business play in society in general and in a country as complex as Guatemala in particular? Guatemalan citizens, including over two dozen different indigenous groups, have gone from fighting a bloody 36-year civil war to fighting corrupt leadership that often appears to put the interests of local and multinational businesses above that of the people. For example, although the Canadian Trade Commission has an office with resources related to CSR in Guatemala, some of the most egregious allegations of human rights abuses relate to mining companies from that country. Similarly, many of the multinationals that proudly publish CSR reports and even use the buzzwords “social license” in slick videos on their websites are the same corporations accused in lawsuits by human rights and environmental defenders. How do these multinationals reconcile these acts? How and when will consumers and socially-responsible investors hold corporations accountable for these acts? Is the Guatemalan government abdicating its responsibility to its own people or is the government in fact complicit with the multinationals? And finally, do foreign governments bear any responsibility for the acts of multinationals acting abroad? This chapter will explore this continuum from corporate social responsibility to corporate accountability using the case study of Guatemala in general and the extractive and palm oil industries in particular.
October 2, 2015 in Commercial Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Has Wal-Mart reformed? Last week I blogged about whether conscious consumers or class actions can really change corporate behavior, especially in the areas of corporate social responsibility or human rights. I ended that post by asking whether Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest gun dealer, had bowed down to pressure from activist groups when it announced that it would stop selling assault rifles despite the fact that gun sales are rising (not falling as Wal-Mart claims). Fellow blogger Ann Lipton did a great post about the company’s victory over shareholder Trinity over a proposal related to the sale of dangerous products (guns with high capacity magazines). There doesn’t appear to be anything in the 2015 proxy that would necessitate even the consideration of a change that Wal-Mart fought through the Third Circuit to avoid.
So why the change? Is it due to the growing public weariness over mass shootings? Did they feel the sting after Senator Chris Murphy praised them for ceasing the sale of Confederate flags but called them out on their gun sales? Even the demands of a Senator won’t overcome the apparent lack of political will to enact more strict gun control, so fear of legislation is not a likely factor either. Selling guns doesn't even conflict with the very specific initiatives in their comprehensive GRI-referenced global responsibility report.
Maybe the CEO just wants to do what he believes is the right thing. After all, he announced to great fanfare in February that the retailer would be raising minimum wages for associates. But just this week the chain announced that it would be cutting back on worker hours in many stores. Was the pay raise a “cruel PR stunt” as some have complained or it good business sense for a company that has failed to live up to investor expectations and needs to retain good talent and reduce turnover?
A few weeks ago when I did a crash course in US corporate law and governance in Panama, I had a lengthy debate with the head of CSR for a Latin American company. I (cynically) told her that in my ideal(ist) world, companies should adopt a stakeholder view and look beyond profit maximization. However, I believed that most large companies in fact implemented CSR programs to enhance reputation, avoid onerous legislation, and mitigate enterprise risks. The company that builds the school or the drinking well in a remote area of a third-world country does good for the community but it also has workers who can send their children to school, educates the next generation of employees, and makes sure that the community has potable water so that workers don't get sick. Its CSR builds good will in the community that can be worth more than gold. The smart company makes sure that it has a social license to operate as well as legal license.
So back to Wal-Mart. Does the retailer need a social license to boost sagging sales or does it just need different merchandise? In other words is the retailer trying to get more customers by stopping the sale of assault rifles? Was that announcement timed to blunt the effect of the announcement about cutting back hours? Or is Doug McMillon simply doing what he believes makes sense for the shareholders and the stakeholders? The cynic in me says that there’s a business reason other than low sales for the change in position on guns and that there was always a business reason for the rise in wages.
September 3, 2015 in Ann Lipton, Commercial Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)