Asbestos still isn’t fully banned in the US

We grow up learning about the folly of asbestos. It’s a story in the same vein as Thalidomide babies, lead poisoning in the Roman Empire and too many more to list* – modern luxuries end up poisoning an unwitting populace.  Nowadays people argue about cell phones being the next lurking health hazard – asbestos isn’t controversial anymore because we assume it’s gone (The Simpsons joked about it back in the 90s).

There’s a blanket ban on the use of asbestos throughout the European Union – same goes for Australia, Japan, and a lot of other developed nations. Conspicuously absent from the list is the United States. This goes against a lot of people’s assumptions – ask someone about asbestos and one of the things they’re likely to mention is that it’s outlawed.

Asbestos isn’t fully banned in the US due to a 1991 Federal court ruling that prevented the EPA from issuing such a ban. The logic was that banning certain uses of asbestos was too expensive, and that the number of deaths predicted over a decade (several hundred) was apparently below some acceptable threshold. This leaves us in a precarious situation: while the most dangerous uses of asbestos have in fact been outlawed by federal government (and legal thresholds established), there’s still a laundry list of items which are allowed to contain asbestos, here’s a few, courtesy of the EPA:

Cement corrugated sheet, Cement flat sheet, fireproof clothing, Pipeline wrap, Roofing felt, Vinyl floor tile, Cement shingle, Cement pipe, Automatic transmission components, Clutch facings, Friction materials, Disk brake pads, Drum brake linings, Brake blocks, Gaskets, Non-roofing coatings and Roof coatings.

The argument about the economic impact of an asbestos ban might have held water back in 1991, but nowadays not so much. The EU phased out the last few legal uses of asbestos over a decade ago and it didn’t cause an undue burden on their industry. Advances in materials science have brought the world suitable replacements for almost every imaginable use of asbestos, so the lack of replacement materials isn’t a sound argument anymore either.

While a full ban on asbestos will objectively save people’s lives, the impacts of asbestos are likely to be felt for at least another generation. Italy banned asbestos 26 years ago, but a recent study has shown that instances of mesothelioma in Italy are still increasing. Mesothelioma often manifests decades after coming into contact with asbestos, but if the entire world eventually gets on board with a ban, it’s possible that asbestos related deaths will be relegated to the history books by the end of the 21st century.


*but see also: patent medicines, cigarettes, lead additives in gasoline, radium on watches, mad hatters and mercury, etc.

Over 80k Uber drivers receiving checks from FTC settlement

The FTC has begun mailing out checks to 88,799 Uber drivers. Uber agreed to the settlement back in 2017 and the drivers are finally getting their cut – an average of $299.96 per driver. In its marketing materials, Uber touted a median income of over $90,000 for New York uberX drivers – a number which the FTC claimed was a gross misrepresentation – in reality the number was closer to $61,000.

In addition to misleading statements about their driver earnings, the FTC claimed that Uber had misrepresented the costs associated with their vehicle loan and leasing programs – they claimed it was cheaper than it actually was. Uber also allegedly advertised vehicle leases with unlimited mileage when in reality, the leases all had mileage limits.

Considering Uber lost billions of dollars in 2017, a 20 million dollar fine for misleading consumers starts to look like just a drop in the bucket. The terms of the settlement explicitly forbid Uber from making misleading statements about their programs in the future – presumably this means the company would face a more substantive fine if they get violate the law again.

If you’re one of the drivers who’s a part of the settlement, keep an eye out for your check (the FTC says it’s in the mail) – and you’ll only have 60 days to cash it or else it becomes void, according to Epiq (the refund administrator).



FTC cracks down on ‘free trial’ internet scammers

The US District Court of Southern California has issued a temporary restraining order on several San Diego internet marketing companies, at the request of the FTC. The companies are accused of offering bogus free trials for e-cigarettes and various herbal remedies. Customers were charged for their ‘free trial’ and then they were enrolled in expensive subscriptions that were hard to cancel.

The scam goes like this: you click on an ad for a free vape pen – just pay $4.95 shipping and handling. Of course, the only way to pay for the shipping and handling charge is by entering your credit card number – but what could go wrong? In this particular case, the companies listed in the complaint charged customers up to $98.71 for each shipment. Then they send another shipment each month, also at full price.

The defendants in this case are charged with violating the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, FTC Act, and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act. While the temporary restraining order will put a damper on the defendants’ tens of millions of dollars in revenue, the case still needs to go to trial.

The FTC claims that the defendants employed deceptive tactics in their checkout pages.

Can developers use photos without permission? A federal court ruling may surprise you.

If you’ve ever hired a web developer to create a website, you might have sent them some of your favorite photos from google images to use for a slideshow or a background. This is a common request. Experienced developers might politely tell you that you need to use licensed photography on your website, and that appropriating photos without permission is tantamount to stealing.

But maybe it’s not so straightforward. A Virginia federal court recently ruled that using photography without permission (in one case at least) was fair use. How can this be?

The case in question involved a professional photographer who believed a website had infringed on his copyright. An informational website about the Northern Virginia Film Festival was created as a local guide for filmmakers, and the photo in question was a photo of the local area. The website was created by the organizers of the festival, yet they claimed the website was noncommercial in nature. The court agreed.

The reasoning behind the judgement seems to be that the work was transformative, and that it was used non-commercially. The photos weren’t actually altered, so how can they be considered transformative? It was the opinion of the court that the work was transformative in it’s purpose, rather than physically transformative. They decided that the photographer’s purpose was expressive and promotional, while the website’s purpose was informational. It’s also worth noting that the film festival took the photo down when requested.

As far as being considered non-commercial in nature, the court decided that the website wasn’t using the photo to generate revenue or advertise, but simply to provide information to filmmakers attending the festival. Those who disagree with the ruling might argue that any time a business creates a website, it is necessarily promotional in nature.

While the ruling is certainly interesting, it’s still best practice for web developers to stick to photography they have licenses for. There’s no lack of freely available images in the public domain, and it could save you the hassle of going to court.

Wiretap orders increased in 2017

The US Judiciary has just released figures describing the volume of federally ordered wiretaps from 2017. Both the number of wiretaps and the number of convictions arising from them rose. At first glance, these statistics are troubling, but it’s debatable what the implications of the increase in wiretap orders actually are.

The rise in targeted surveillance conducted under the order of a warrant may actually indicate that federal agencies are shifting their investigative tactics to focus on specific leads rather than casting a wide net. Most people are opposed to the type of dragnet-style spying operations that Edward Snowden described to the world, but that’s not what these wiretaps are. The fact that the number of convictions arising from these wiretaps has also risen suggests that the tactic has been successful.