Lockdown, what lockdown? UK begins tougher action against those ignoring shutdown

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain brought in tough measures on Thursday to curb the spread of coronavirus and ensure people obey the government’s virtual lockdown which many thousands are feared to have so far ignored.

The new powers allow police to issue instant fines those who leave their homes without good reason or gather in groups of more than two people.

In northern England, one police force has begun introducing random vehicle checkpoints to ensure the new rules are enforced while the head of the Church of England told Britons who were flouting the instructions to “get your act together”.

Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants and nearly all shops to close, banned social gatherings and told people to stay at home unless they needed to buy food, go out to essential work or to exercise once a day.

While millions have respected the measures, roads and parks have remained busy, and the authorities across the country have repeatedly reported that people have not respected the 2 metre (6 foot) guidance on social distancing while others have continued to mingle.

On Thursday, a new regulations came into effect which give the authorities the power to impose a 30-pound fixed penalty on those who breach the rules. Repeat offenders could ultimately receive a fine of up to 960 pounds and might be arrested.

Those who did not pay up could be taken to court, where magistrates could impose unlimited fines, the government said.

“The prime minister has been clear on what we need to do: stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives,” said Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel.

PARKS CLOSED

Some Britons have continued their daily routine and risked spreading the virus which the government fears could overwhelm the National Health Service if large numbers contract COVID-19.

In east London, police and the Tower Hamlets local authority said they had been forced to close Victoria Park, one of the largest and most popular open public spaces in the area, because people were failing to abide by the guidance.

The Royal Parks, a charity which looks after eight major parks across the capital, said it too was considering shutting its gates.

“It is up to all of us collectively to adhere to the latest guidance, otherwise we will have to consider closing the parks. We will keep the situation under constant review,” said Tom Jarvis, its Director of Parks.

Other cities have already closed some parks and facilities to meet the guidance on social distancing while Greater Manchester firefighters said they had received reports of lots of people having barbecues on moorlands.

Meanwhile police in Devon, southwest England, said when they has asked a young cyclist why he was four miles from his home and not following the rules, he had replied: “It only kills old people”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual head of the Church of England, said people should not act selfishly.

“Get your act together,” he said to those who have been ignoring the strict government social distancing instructions.

“If you are not complying, you are risking other people’s lives, not just your own,” he told ITV News.

To ensure compliance, police in northern England said they would bring in vehicle checkpoints from Thursday, along with foot patrols to disperse any groups.

“We sincerely hope that we won’t have to resort to enforcement action, but if people do not comply, we will,” said Mike Walker, Assistant Chief Constable of North Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said anyone who claimed they had the virus and deliberately coughed at police or other emergency workers could be charged with common assault and face up to two years in jail.

“Let me be very clear: this is a crime and needs to stop.”

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

Restoring felon voting rights a ‘mess’ in battleground Florida

By Linda So

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) – Clifford Tyson wants to help choose America’s next president. But the Florida resident fears his vote might return him to jail.

Tyson, 63, owes court-ordered fines and fees for three felony convictions, one for robbery, two for theft, all decades old. Under a Florida law that went into effect July 1, he must pay those penalties before casting a ballot or risk being prosecuted for voter fraud.

Tyson searched court records, first on his own, then with the help of a nonprofit legal advocacy group. They say that because Florida has no comprehensive system for tracking such fines, the documents don’t make clear what he owes. The records, viewed by Reuters, show potential sums ranging from $846 to a couple thousand dollars related to crimes he committed in the late 1970s and 1990s. Tyson says he won’t risk voting until Florida authorities can tell him for sure.

“Until there is clarity, as much as I want to vote, I won’t do it,” Tyson said.

The Tampa pastor is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the payments law, which was crafted by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican. The law came just months after Floridians approved a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons who have completed their sentences; that change to the state’s Constitution created a potentially huge new crop of voters in a critical battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The lawsuit, filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, alleges the fees requirement defies the will of Florida voters and amounts to an illegal poll tax on newly enfranchised Florida felons, many of them minorities.

But another argument is shaping up to be central to the plaintiffs’ case: Florida has no consolidated system for determining what felons owe or certifying that they have paid up. It’s a situation that ex-offenders say makes it virtually impossible for them to prove they are eligible to vote.

Those claims are bolstered by state election officials who say they can’t calculate what felons owe, either, according to a Reuters review of 7 depositions, emails and other internal correspondence from voting administrators submitted by plaintiffs’ attorneys as part of the lawsuit.

Florida has no centralized database where records of court-ordered fines and fees – and any payments of those penalties – are stored, election and court officials say. To get that information, felons typically must search documents in courts where they were convicted, be they federal or state, inside or outside Florida. Records have been found to be incomplete, contradictory or missing, plaintiffs’ attorneys say.

With the Feb. 18 deadline to register for the state’s 2020 presidential primary approaching, the issue is taking on urgency. An estimated 436,000 felons have fees to settle before they can vote, according to a study by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, an expert witness for the ACLU. The study was based on court data and Department of Corrections records.

The stakes are high. Florida commands 29 of the 538 electoral votes that are used under the U.S. Electoral College system to select the American president. In Florida and most other states, the candidate who places first in the popular vote – even if just by a hair – wins all the electoral votes. Florida has a history of tight elections and contested outcomes.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say Florida has shifted all responsibility for compliance with the new payments law to ex-offenders, who risk prosecution if they get it wrong. The state contends the legislature merely implemented the constitutional amendment as it was written on the ballot.

The legislation, known as SB 7066, “sows seeds of confusion,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It will chill participation.”

Some of the state’s 67 county elections supervisors – the public servants who ultimately decide which felons get culled from the rolls and which can stay – expressed concern in their depositions and to Reuters about making mistakes that could invite challenges to future election results.

Five testified recently in the lawsuit that they lack the manpower to do detailed searches or have no way of ascertaining for certain whether ex-offenders have met their financial obligations under SB 7066.

They said they are relying on Florida’s Department of State, which manages the state’s elections, to help them determine who is ineligible. That agency is developing a procedure to send counties regularly updated lists of felons on their rolls who have unpaid fines and fees, but it has no timetable as to when it will be ready, said Maria Matthews, the director of the Department of State’s Division of Elections, in a September deposition. Matthews did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

For now, the agency is providing counties only with names of Florida felons who are incarcerated, and thus ineligible to vote, Toshia Brown, chief of the department’s Voter Registration Services, said in an August deposition. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

An early list sent to Leon County in Florida’s Panhandle region appeared to contain inaccuracies, Deputy Elections Supervisor Christopher Moore said in a July email to his staff, which was viewed by Reuters. Moore’s office researched a June list provided by the Department of State containing 66 names of allegedly incarcerated felons, but could not determine whether felony convictions existed for 24 of them – 36% of the total – emails exchanged between Moore and his staff show.

“This process is not off to a very accurate start and we are playing with people’s eligibility to vote,” Moore said in the July email. Moore told Reuters that subsequent data his office has received from the Department of State has gotten better.

Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the Department of State reviews information from a variety of sources, makes an initial determination on a voter’s eligibility, then passes that along to county supervisors. She said the agency is working to “improve the accuracy and efficiency of the information,” but said it’s up to those elections supervisors to make the final call.

Some backers of the payments law say the responsibility should be on ex-offenders, not the state, to figure out how to comply with SB 7066.

“If you’re going to register to vote and you’re a former felon, it’s worth double checking to make sure you took care of everything,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party in central Florida.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Florida has set a Monday hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to throw out the fees requirement. A decision could come as early as this month.

NO CENTRALIZED DATABASE

Florida stripped felons of their votes during the Jim Crow era in 1868, a ban that endured 150 years and disproportionately affected black voters. As recently as 2016, more than 1.4 million people with felony convictions were barred from voting in Florida, including one in five African American adults, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit, which used state conviction and incarceration records for the study.

In November 2018, nearly 65% of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons, except those convicted of murder and sex crimes.

Through the end of July, Florida recorded around 337,000 new voter registrations, 45,000 of them by African Americans. That’s a 22% increase in new black voters compared to the same period in 2015, the year preceding the last presidential election, a Reuters analysis of Florida voting data shows.

The ballot initiative said felons must first complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Republican lawmakers interpreted that to include any court costs, fines, fees and restitution to victims imposed at sentencing. In May, they passed a bill requiring repayment as a condition for voting.

DeSantis, the governor, signed it into law in June amid criticism by voting rights advocates that the legislation was intended to suppress potential votes of African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic. DeSantis has dismissed claims that the law is a poll tax.

The state is still discussing ways to centralize data to track payments. Building a consolidated system could take years and cost millions, according to lawmakers and officials who debated the issue before the law’s passage.

“Right now, the system is just a mess,” ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein said.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center said the group spent weeks trying to track down what Tyson owes, but couldn’t get a clear answer.

For example, Tyson has a 1998 theft conviction in Hillsborough County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A judgment order on the clerk’s online docket shows he was ordered to pay $661 in costs, fines and fees. But a separate subpage on the website indicates he was ordered to pay $1,066. Still another shows a total of $573. Tyson’s lawyers say no officials have been able to explain the discrepancies.

State Representative Jamie Grant of Tampa, a Republican supporter of SB 7066, said critics of the law are the ones trying to defy the will of the electorate.

“You don’t get to change what the definition and terms are after people vote for it,” Grant said.

(Reporting by Linda So; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Facebook to pay record $5 billion U.S. fine over privacy violations; critics call it a bargain

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joe Simons announces that Facebook Inc has agreed to a settlement of allegations it mishandled user privacy during a news conference at FTC Headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc will pay a record-breaking $5 billion fine to resolve a government probe into its privacy practices and the social media giant will restructure its approach to privacy, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said on Wednesday.

The probe uncovered a wide range of privacy issues. It was triggered last year by allegations that Facebook violated a 2012 consent decree by inappropriately sharing information belonging to 87 million users with the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The consultancy’s clients included President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The FTC voted 3-2 along party lines to adopt the settlement, which requires court approval. The Republican commissioners called the settlement “a complete home run” that exceeded any award the commission could have gotten in court. Democratic commissioners said it did not go far enough or require a large enough fine.

Republican FTC Chairman Joe Simons stressed the FTC’s limited authority and desire to avoid a long uncertain court fight.

“Would it have been nice to get more, to get $10 billion, instead of $5 billion for example, to get greater restrictions on how Facebook collects uses and shares data?” he asked at a press conference. “We did not have those options. We cannot impose such things by our own fiat.”

Facebook confirmed it would pay the $5 billion fine and said the FTC deal would provide “a comprehensive new framework for protecting people’s privacy.” Its share price fell about 1% on Wednesday morning to trade at $200.39.

Democratic FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra complained that the penalty provided “blanket immunity” for Facebook executives “and no real restraints on Facebook’s business model” and does “not fix the core problems that led to these violations.”

Facebook agreed to pay an additional $100 million to settle allegations that it misled investors about the seriousness of its misuse of users’ data, the Securities and Exchange Commission said.

Under the FTC settlement, Facebook’s board will create an independent privacy committee that removes “unfettered control by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over decisions affecting user privacy.”

Facebook also agreed to exercise greater oversight over third-party apps, and said it was ending access to friend data for Microsoft Corp and Sony Corp.

The Republican majority on the FTC said the settlement “significantly diminishes Mr. Zuckerberg’s power — something no government agency, anywhere in the world, has thus far accomplished.”

Under the deal, Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives must sign quarterly certifications attesting to privacy practices. The FTC said Zuckerberg or others filing a false certification could face civil and criminal penalties.

Facebook also is barred from asking for email passwords to other services when consumers sign up. It is barred from using telephone numbers for advertising if they are obtained in a security feature like two-factor authentication. The company must also get user consent to use facial recognition data.

Facebook said it may find additional problems as it initiates a review of its systems and warned it will take longer to roll out updates as it plans to use “hundreds of engineers and more than a thousand people across our company to do this important work.”

“As part of this settlement, we’re bringing our privacy controls more in line with our financial controls,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “Going forward, when we ship a new feature that uses data, or modify an existing feature to use data in new ways, we’ll have to document any risks and the steps we’re taking to mitigate them.”

The FTC also said that Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO Alexander Nix and former app developer Aleksandr Kogan had agreed to a settlement restricting how they conduct business.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was one of several Democratic lawmakers who criticized the settlement, calling it “a fig leaf” that offers “no accountability for top executives.”

“By relying on a monetary fine to deter Facebook, the FTC has failed to heed history’s lessons. Facebook has already written this penalty down as a one-time-cost in return for the extraordinary profits reaped from a decade of data misuse,” said Blumenthal.

Facebook’s legal issues may not be over. On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department said it was opening a broad investigation of major digital technology firms into whether they engage in anti-competitive practices.

The department did not identify specific companies but said the review would consider concerns raised about “search, social media, and some retail services online.” Leaders in those areas include Google parent Alphabet Inc, Amazon.com Inc, Facebook and possibly Apple Inc.

FTC DECIDED TO SETTLE PROBE

The Republican commissioners led by Simons said if the FTC had gone to court “it is highly unlikely that any judge would have imposed a civil penalty even remotely close to this one.”

The Democrats on the FTC complained that the $5 billion penalty may be less than Facebook’s gains from violating users’ privacy. “Until we address Facebook’s core financial incentives for risking our personal privacy and national security, we will not be able to prevent these problems from happening again,” Chopra said.

His fellow Democratic commissioner, Rebecca Slaughter, said the FTC should have taken Facebook and Zuckerberg to court. She also criticized the FTC’s decision to grant Facebook and its executives a release from liability for any claims that prior to June 12, 2019 it violated the earlier FTC settlement.

Slaughter said the FTC failed “to impose any substantive restrictions on Facebook’s collection and use of data from or about users.”

Chopra said the settlement means “the commission — and the public — may never find out what Facebook knows… It is difficult to conclude that the commission got the better end of the bargain.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio)

NYC mayor orders mandatory measles vaccinations after Brooklyn outbreak

FILE PHOTO: A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn on Tuesday in response to a measles outbreak, requiring unvaccinated people living in the affected areas to get the vaccine or face fines.

The city’s largest measles outbreak since 1991 has mainly been confined to the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, with 285 cases confirmed since October, de Blasio said at a news conference.

“This is the epicenter of a measles outbreak that is very, very troubling and must be dealt with immediately,” de Blasio said.

The disease is easily spread and can be fatal, but there have been no confirmed deaths so far, officials said.

The outbreak is part of a broader resurgence in the United States, with 465 cases reported in 19 states so far this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials from New York City’s Department of Health will check vaccination records of anyone who has been in contact with infected patients in certain parts of Brooklyn, officials said.

Those who have not received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, or can otherwise give evidence of immunity, such as having previously had the measles, will face a fine of up to $1,000.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Gine Cherelus; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Guilt, fines remain hazy as Saudi corruption purge draws to close

Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal sits for an interview with Reuters in the office of the suite where he has been detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 27, 2018.

By Stephen Kalin and Reem Shamseddine

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabian media magnate Waleed al-Ibrahim was found innocent in an anti-corruption purge, a source at his company said on Monday, part of a wider campaign against graft whose secrecy could hurt the country’s effort to win foreign investment.

Ibrahim, who controls influential regional broadcaster MBC, was one of at least half a dozen top businessmen freed from more than two months of detention at the weekend after being interrogated by officials who said they aimed to recover $100 billion of illicit funds.

The officials said all of the men, who included billionaire global investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, had agreed to financial settlements after admitting to unspecified “violations”.

But the allegations against the men and their settlements have been kept secret, leaving the global investment community to wonder what the penalties are for large-scale corruption in Saudi Arabia – and whether detainees were actually guilty.

The mystery is unsettling investors who have closely watched Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s every move since he promised to reform oil superpower Saudi Arabia, surprising citizens who regarded top businessmen and powerful royals as untouchable.

Aside from the crackdown on corruption, those changes are meant to include less dependence on oil, megaprojects to create jobs, and greater transparency and social freedoms.

The decision to release some of the most powerful people in the kingdom comes ahead of a planned trip by Prince Mohammed to the United States and European capitals in February and March, according to diplomats.

He could face awkward questions there about how the purge was conducted. The releases, and what kind of deals may have been struck, could have huge implications for Saudi Arabia’s image in the international investment community.

MBC’s Ibrahim “was fully exonerated and declared innocent of any wrongdoing, no corruption charges, no charges actually whatsoever,” a senior executive at MBC group told Reuters.

In an email to its staff, MBC management said Ibrahim was “fit and well and eager to get back. He has also been totally exonerated and faces no issues going forward.”

MURKINESS

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for information on the cases of Ibrahim and dozens of other officials and businessmen caught by the purge.

Prince Alwaleed, owner of global investor Kingdom Holding, continued to maintain his innocence in an interview with Reuters hours before his release, although an official said he had agreed to an unspecified financial settlement.

On Monday, shares in Kingdom rose back to the level where they were trading when Prince Alwaleed was arrested – a vote of confidence by the market in his future. In the days after his detention, the shares had plunged more than 20 percent, erasing as much as $2.2 billion of his fortune.

Authorities have not disclosed how many people are still detained but Riyadh’s grand Ritz-Carlton hotel, where many detainees were held, is to reopen to the public by mid-February.

Last week, before the latest releases, the attorney general said most detainees had agreed to settlements, 90 were released after charges were dropped, and 95 remained in custody. Some cases will go to trial.

Jason Tuvey, Middle East economist at Capital Economics in London, said the purge had increased uncertainty among potential foreign investors in Saudi Arabia, because it was not clear how they would be treated if they were caught up in corruption allegations.

“The release of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and a number of other high-profile individuals may ease some concerns, but we still don’t have any details on what sort of agreement they have reached with the authorities. It just adds to the murkiness surrounding the whole process.”

He added that one potential worry for investors was that the purge could one day lead to a backlash against Prince Mohammed, who launched the purge and is leading ambitious reforms.

“Investors will probably need some reassurance on the exact procedures going forward to deal with corruption allegations,” Tuvey said. “But I think political uncertainty will remain a key risk surrounding the Saudi economy for many years to come.”

Prince Mohammed initially said he wanted to conclude the purge quickly. Foreign bankers dealing with Saudi Arabia said he may have been encouraged to do so by concern that the purge could start to affect foreign investment in the country.

Constructing complex, watertight legal cases against detainees may have been more challenging than expected – suggesting the government might find it hard to reach its target of recovering $100 billion of illicit funds, analysts said.

Saudi officials said Ibrahim’s 40 percent stake in MBC would remain unchanged and Prince Alwaleed would stay in control of Kingdom.

But construction giant Saudi Binladin Group said earlier this month that family shareholders might transfer part of their holdings to the state in a settlement with authorities.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Writing by Andrew Torchia; Editing by Michael Georgy, William Maclean)