You know you’ve had a bad week when two adverse rulings come home to roost – with billion-dollar consequences. So, it’s hard not to feel a little of Google’s pain as it faces down a pair of expensive and potentially damaging international judgements.
A record fine for anti-competitive practices
First up, the European Union’s record $2.7-billion fine for anti-competitive behaviour. This relates to the company’s practice of handling its own shopping search engine – Google Shopping – in a different way from those of its competitors by defaulting it to the top of searches while bumping others down the list. Regulators say that by illegally promoting its own price comparison service in this way, Google has ‘abused its market dominance as a search engine’ and demoted the services of competitors like Kelkoo.
Yahoo faces investigation over email privacy
It never rains but it pours! With public trust in freefall over the delayed announcement of a large-scale Yahoo account hack, the company’s decision to scan clients’ email accounts on behalf of US authorities has fuelled discussions in Europe over the thorny issue of privacy.
According to Reuters, Yahoo is facing criticism over its compliance with a classified US government request to comb through customers’ incoming emails for information specified by US intelligence officials. European politicians have since called on the European Commission (EC) to investigate the incident – which could derail the progress of the transatlantic data sharing deal agreed earlier this year.
‘Any form of mass surveillance infringing on the fundamental privacy rights of EU citizens would be viewed as a matter of considerable concern,’ commented Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner in a statement.
Yahoo’s only response was that it ‘complies with the laws of the United States’, declining to confirm whether it scanned users’ emails or to say if Europeans’ emails were intercepted during the operation. The episode is likely to touch a nerve with Europeans who fear that the ‘Privacy Shield’ data sharing deal doesn’t offer enough protection against mass surveillance by US intelligence agencies.
Emerging from the doldrums
The pace of US growth recovered sharply in the third quarter, peaking at its highest rate in two years and lending credence to forecasts that the country is on track for greater economic stability as 2016 draws to a close.
The economy expanded at a 2.9 percent annualised rate in the third quarter, up from 1.4 percent in the second quarter, which topped predictions of a more modest rate of 2.6 percent and reflected a spike in exports as well as an increase in federal spending, according to the US Commerce Department.
That said, consumption growth – another key indicator of the health of the economy – dropped back over the same period to just 2.1 percent, down from more than double that figure in the previous quarter, and falling a long way short of the expected 2.6 percent benchmark.
When Britons voted narrowly to exit the European Union in a public referendum earlier this year, they may not have envisaged the ensuing shock to the country’s currency and financial reputation.
But now, with sterling languishing at its lowest value in 40 years and the UK stripped of its Triple-A credit rating, the country is also facing the possible loss of its reserve currency status, should it fail to secure continued access to the European single market.
US ratings agency Standard & Poor has admitted that the British government is risking significant damage to the economy’s growth, with potentially long-term implications for the country’s debt and credit profile. S&P fears that if the UK loses access to the single market, its businesses will suffer incalculable consequences for the foreseeable future.
Illegal banking practices come home to roost
A year ago, the city of Los Angeles sued Wells Fargo for unethical customer conduct, alleging that the bank had covertly opened unauthorised accounts on behalf of customers. Twelve months on and the bank has been forced to reach settlements with city and federal officials totalling almost $200 million.
At a September hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Wells Fargo CEO John G. Stumpf announced he was forfeiting at least $41 million in pay, at the same time vowing to immediately drop the banks sales incentive programme that was to blame for inciting bankers to set up the illegal accounts.
But it seems that few of his interrogators were impressed, with lawmakers from both sides of the house taking turns to tear into Stumpf over a period of four hours, labelling the bank’s actions as ‘theft’ and commenting that the fallout from the scandal had dealt a devastating blow to the entire banking industry.
Room at the top?
Ever get the feeling that it’s about time you changed some of your fixtures and fittings? Well it’s a message that corporate governance advisor ISS is trying to get across to the shareholders of some of the United States’ top companies – including Alphabet and Berkshire Hathaway – as it begins to apply pressure for a little light boardroom ‘refreshment’.
As part of its latest annual survey, ISS is canvassing opinions on boards where long-serving directors hold sway or where new members are about as rare as hens’ teeth. The outcome could help to shape changes in its investor voting guidelines in the future.