Bank Fees Predicted To Rise In 2012, As Banks Try To Bo ...

From Huffington Post:

Bank Fees Predicted To Rise In 2012, As Banks Try To Boost Revenue

Squeezed by regulations under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, banks are looking to find new ways to wring fees from customers. In 2012, expect to see higher minimum balance requirements and an ongoing push to increase customers’ credit card spending, according to a “2012 U.S. Banking Sector Outlook” report from Trepp, an analytics company that provides information to the banking industry.

Other industry analysts predict that some banks could raise overdraft fees from $35 to a new high of $40 and that more institutions will increase monthly maintenance fees on basic checking accounts to between $12 and $15.

Over the past three years, various new regulations under the Dodd-Frank Act and the Credit Card Act have reined in certain aggressive fee practices. More regulations in 2012 are expected to further hamper banks’ ability to make big profits off the basic banking activities of consumers.

Yet banks’ losses from Dodd-Frank and other regulations haven’t been as dramatic as portrayed. In 2007, the percentage of revenue that came from fees was more than 40 percent, according to Trepp. In 2011, that percentage dropped just 4 points to 36 percent.

Big banks are not expected to grow much next year. Financial services firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods forecast no growth in core revenues next year at Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

And banks are scrambling to regain revenue. Doug Miller, a senior analyst with Corporate Insight, a firm that provides analysis to the banking industry, said he expects banks to create more packaged and tiered account plans that waive fees if customers bundle together different types of accounts, such as savings, checking and money market, at the same institution. “It is a way to create more of an ongoing banking relationship,” said Miller. “They want all your basic deposit accounts.”

For consumers, however, opening more accounts with the same institution has a cost: It makes it harder to unwind personal finances from that institution and monopolizes a customer’s funds.

These efforts to earn more money may also fall short. “We are not optimistic that these steps will improve profits in a meaningful way,” the Trepp report said. “At best, [they] will only contribute marginal additional amounts to non-interest revenue.”

With diminishing opportunities to lift fees from customers and a tougher regulatory landscape, the outlook for the banking industry, especially the biggest banks, is grim in 2012. Profits are expected to remain flat for the biggest banks, and financial institutions are expected to slash more jobs.

Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Ex ...

From The New York Times:

Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism

By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: December 27, 2011
 

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — The latest battleground in Israel’s struggle over religious extremism covers little more than a square mile of this Jewish city situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it has the unexpected public face of a blond, bespectacled second-grade girl.

Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of observant Orthodox Jews, has been spat on and otherwise insulted by ultra-Orthodox men and boys on her way to school because her modest dress did not adhere to their standards.

She is Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of American immigrants who are observant modern Orthodox Jews. An Israeli weekend television program told the story of how Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school here after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.

The country was outraged. Naama’s picture has appeared on the front pages of all the major Israeli newspapers. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Sunday that “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all,” there have been days of confrontation at focal points of friction here.

Ultra-Orthodox men and boys from the most stringent sects have hurled rocks and eggs at the police and journalists, shouting “Nazis” at the security forces and assailing female reporters with epithets like “shikse,” a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman or girl, and “whore.” Jews of varying degrees of orthodoxy and secularity headed to Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening to join local residents in a protest numbering in the thousands against religious violence and fanaticism.

For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women.

The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly “kosher” buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back.

The virulent coercion in Beit Shemesh has been attributed mainly to a group of several hundred ultra-Orthodox extremists who came here from Jerusalem, known as the Sicarii, or daggermen, after a violent and stealthy faction of Jews who tried to expel the Romans in the decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Religious extremism is hardly new to Israel, but the Sicarii and their bullying ilk push with a bold vigor that has yet to be fully explained. Certainly, Israel’s coalition politics have allowed the ultra-Orthodox parties to wield disproportionate power beyond the roughly 10 percent of the population they currently represent.

The ultra-Orthodox community’s rapidly increasing numbers — thanks to extraordinarily high birthrates — may also have emboldened the hard core, as may have their insular neighborhoods. And their leadership appears to lack moderating brakes.

In any case, the extremists have provoked an outpouring of opposition from all those who are more flexible, be they ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, mainstream or secular. In fact, it was an ultra-Orthodox-led group that claimed at least part of the credit for making Naama’s story public.

“We are working to save our city and to save our homes,” said Dov Lipman, 40, a local activist, rabbi and self-defined modern ultra-Orthodox, who moved to Beit Shemesh from Silver Spring, Md., seven years ago. Seizing on the public mood of rejecting ultra-Orthodox bullying, Mr. Lipman and a group of supporters have been lobbying the Israeli Parliament, organizing protests and recently hired a media consultant. He said that is how Naama’s story came out.

Built near the ruins of an ancient city of that name mentioned in the Bible, Beit Shemesh was established in 1950, first drawing mostly poor immigrants from North Africa, then immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and English-speaking countries. With the construction of the new neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh A and B in the 1990s, the ultra-Orthodox population boomed. Residents say 20,000 more planned housing units are earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox.

In Ramat Beit Shemesh B, signs on the walls of buildings call for modesty, exhorting women and girls to dress in buttoned-up, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. Outside a synagogue on Hazon Ish Street in the Kirya ha-Haredit quarter, a sign requested that females should cross to the opposite sidewalk and certainly not tarry outside the building.

Naama’s school, Orot, opened in September in an area with a large community of English-speaking observant Jews that borders on the strictest ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. She quickly found she had to run a miserable gantlet to get to school, even dressed in long sleeves and long skirts.

Riots broke out on Monday when the police accompanied media crews into Hazon Ish Street, the area where Naama’s tormentors are believed to have come from. Hundreds of black-garbed men and boys poured out of the synagogue and an adjacent seminary holding handwritten signs calling for the exclusion of women, illustrated with the male and female symbols used for public washrooms. One policeman was injured after being hit in the head with a rock and several arrests were made before the crowds dispersed at dusk.

Many of the ultra-Orthodox agitators blamed the news media for the unrest, saying they had come into the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to sow hatred and to persecute the residents for their religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, some residents insisted that Beit Shemesh was a tolerant city, but defended at least some gender separation and modesty on religious grounds.

“I think women are very poorly treated in Western society,” said Cindy Feder, 57, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh A, who came to Israel from New York in 1970, and who defines herself as an “open haredi,” the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox. She said that the objectification of women on some billboards made her feel sick.

In the more austere Ramat Beit Shemesh B, a 32-year-old mother of four defended the gender separation on public transportation, saying that it was necessary to preserve women’s honor on crowded buses that squeezed people like “tomato puree.”

But the woman, who gave only her first name, Rivka, for fear of provoking the disapproval of her neighbors, also told a story that revealed the costs of separation: one night, the extremists came and removed all the public benches from the neighborhood, so that the women could no longer sit outside with their children in the street.

Voter ID Law Blocked By Feds In South Carolina, Texas C ...

From Huffington Post

 

Voter ID Law Blocked By Feds In South Carolina, Texas Could Be Next

Last week the Justice Department blocked a South Carolina law that would require voters to produce photo identification at the polls. Now a similar Texas voter ID law could very well be next to face a legal challenge.

Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas numbers among a few states, including South Carolina, that must have federal approval of any changes to its election laws because of its history of racial discrimination.

The Texas attorney general’s office is prepared to take all necessary legal action to defend the voter ID law enacted by the Texas Legislature,” Texas AG spokeswoman Lauren Bean told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the organization’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy, said he expects the Texas law to be blocked as well.

“Our hope is that we see the same thing happening with Texas,” Shelton told The Huffington Post’s Black Voices on Wednesday afternoon. “These very nasty, very strong photo ID laws have a desperate impact on racial minorities and other communities.”

The Texas law is very similar to the South Carolina law, Shelton said, and because of the requirement placed upon the state to get approval for election law changes, he believes it is all the more likely that the Justice Department will block it, as the department did in South Carolina.

“Having the Justice Department come in as an impartial third party and actually do the kind of analysis that it did, and its thorough assessment of the law and a thorough investigation into its possible impact; and to come out with what it did says an awful lot,” Shelton said.

The Justice Department’s decision was a rare victory for those fighting to stop what has been described as an effort to suppress turnout among minority voters and other groups that have historically supported Democrats. But the government’s intervention in South Carolina may also serve as a goad to those who support such laws. Proponents of voter ID laws say the measures are needed to protect against voter fraud.

Both sides seem poised for a prolonged legal fight, with South Carolina as the first battleground. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has vowed to take the case to federal court, if need be.

Gov. Nikki Haley denounced the decision as an act of political “bullying.”

“It is outrageous,” she said in reported statements. “We plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned.”

More than a dozen states have passed tough new voting restriction laws this year. Eight of those states, including Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, require photo identification. A handful of these laws — including the Texas law signed this summer by Gov. Rick Perry — are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.

In Texas, voters can present a gun permit but not college-issued identification.

The fight thus far has split along partisan lines, the debate tinged with elements of age, race and class. According to Democrats, about 25 percent of African Americans and 19 percent of Latinos do not have any form of government-issued identification. And the poor and many older Americans, reports suggest, are less able to pay various fees connected with acquiring the identification that would be required under many of the new laws.

A number of minority and labor groups, including the NAACP, the United Federation of Teachers, the health care workers’ union 1199SEIU, the National Council of La Raza, the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund and others have joined forces and continue to hold protests and rallies around the country.

Democrats have also launched an offensive of their own, much of it couched in a recently released report, “A Reversal in Progress: Restricting Voting Rights for Electoral Gain,” and the launch of a website www.protectingthevote.org.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently gave a speech in Austin, Texas, in which he urged political parties “to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success.”

“Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls — from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot,” Holder said during the Dec. 13 speech.

The debate has spread to the blogosphere and to the cable news shows.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, veteran activist and host of “Politics Nation” on MSNBC, said during a recent interview with The Huffington Post that the most important issues facing blacks today are jobs and the fight over the voter ID laws.

“Jobs, because people need to be able to feed their families,” he said. “Voter ID, because we need to be able to keep people empowered.”

Republicans have said the laws are necessary to protect against voter fraud, while Democrats contend that such fraud is extremely rare. Meanwhile, across the country, stories are emerging of citizens, many of them elderly and African American, being denied the required identification that would make them eligible to vote.

It has allegedly happened twice in Tennessee alone, including a 96-year-old woman who could not locate her marriage license, and a 93-year-old woman who had cleaned the state Capitol there for some 30 years. The latter woman, Thelma Johnson, was born in Alabama via midwife and was never issued a birth certificate, according to a report on the website thinkprogress.org.

Maria Cubria, an advocate with the Texas Public Interest Group, which opposes the laws, told The Huffington Post Wednesday that the fight in Texas over the voter ID laws has become an “over my dead body” issue.

“There’s the usual partisan bickering back and forth, but it’s almost a wait-and-see attitude for people who are very encouraged by the Justice Department’s ruling [in South Carolina],” Cubria said. “However, it ultimately could be some time before the court makes a decision if this goes to court in Texas. So people are balancing their optimism with caution.”

The issue was a cornerstone for Texas Republicans in the 2010 elections, she said. When Republicans gained a super-majority in the state legislature, the law’s passage became a near certainty.

“Voting is one of our most basic, fundamental rights as Americans, and we should be doing everything we can to make it easier to vote, not putting up barriers and wasting taxpayer dollars fighting these battles in court,” Cubria said.

Lenny McAllister, a conservative talk-show host and a regular on cable news shows, called the Justice Department’s decision “political social engineering,” and explained to HuffPost that to suggest the laws disenfranchise minorities is “offensive” to blacks.

“There really isn’t an excuse in 2011 for black Americans to be so detached from the American mainstream that we are arguing over having photo IDs,” said McAllister, who is black. “Didn’t our people die, didn’t our people get killed, lynched and castrated for us to not have to have these arguments?”

Those who fought and died to enfranchise blacks are “rolling in their graves,” McAllister said. “It is an ignorant argument for us as black Americans to even have.”

He, like many other supporters of the laws, argue that so many routine transactions, from purchasing an airline ticket to renting a movie, require photo identification, that making it a requirement to vote is not an undue burden. McAllister said that America is suffering from an “illegal immigration” problem and that many cities serve as sanctuaries for immigrants. His fear is that many of these “illegal” immigrants will infiltrate the voting booths using little more than utility bills.

“We have to ensure that our elections mean what they say and say what they mean,” he said. “We can’t give [non-Americans] the opportunity to impact America without being American citizens. That’s just wrong.”

Feds Falsely Censor Popular Blog For Over A Year, Deny ...

From Tech Dirt:

Feds Falsely Censor Popular Blog For Over A Year, Deny All Due Process, Hide All Details…

from the copyright-as-censorship dept

Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine’s offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company’s printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine’s lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that’s a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.

But, in a story that’s been in the making for over a year, and which we’re exposing to the public for the first time now, this is exactly the scenario that has played out over the past year — with the only difference being that, rather than “a printing press” and a “magazine,” the story involved “a domain” and a “blog.”

There are so many things about this story that are crazy, it’s difficult to know where to start, so let’s give the most important point first: The US government has effectively admitted that it totally screwed up and falsely seized & censored a non-infringing domain of a popular blog, having falsely claimed that it was taking part in criminal copyright infringement. Then, after trying to hide behind a totally secretive court process with absolutely no due process whatsoever (in fact, not even serving papers on the lawyer for the site or providing timely notifications — or providing any documents at all), for over a year, the government has finally realized it couldn’t hide any more and has given up, and returned the domain name to its original owner. If you ever wanted to understand why ICE’s domain seizures violate the law — and why SOPA and PROTECT IP are almost certainly unconstitutional — look no further than what happened in this case.

Okay, now some details. First, remember Dajaz1.com? It was one of the sites seized over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend back in 2010 — a little over a year ago. Those seizures struck us as particularly interesting, because among the sites seized were a bunch of hip hop blogs, including a few that were highly ranked on Vibe’s list of the top hip hop blogs. These weren’t the kinds of things anyone would expect, when supporters of these domain seizures and laws like SOPA and PROTECT IP talk of “rogue sites.” Blogs would have lots of protected speech, and in the hip hop community these blogs, in particular, were like the new radio. Artists routinely leaked their works directly to these sites in order to promote their albums. We even pointed to a few cases of stars like Kanye West and Diddy tweeting links to some of the seized domains in the past.

In fact, as the details came out, it became clear that ICE and the Justice Department were in way over their heads. ICE’s “investigation” was done by a technically inept recent college grad, who didn’t even seem to understand the basics of the technology. But it didn’t stop him from going to a judge and asking for a site to be completely censored with no due process.

The Dajaz1 case became particularly interesting to us, after we saw evidence showing that the songs that ICE used in its affidavit as “evidence” of criminal copyright infringement were songs sent by representatives of the copyright holder with the request that the site publicize the works — in one case, even coming from a VP at a major music label. Even worse, about the only evidence that ICE had that these songs were infringing was the word of the “VP of Anti-Piracy Legal Affairs for the RIAA,” Carlos Linares, who was simply not in a position to know if the songs were infringing or authorized. In fact, one of the songs involved an artist not even represented by an RIAA label, and Linares clearly had absolutely no right to speak on behalf of that artist.

Despite all of this, the government simply seized the domain, put up a big scary warning graphic on the site, suggesting its operators were criminals, and then refused to comment at all about the case. Defenders of the seizures insisted that this was all perfectly legal and nothing to be worried about. They promised us that the government had every right to do this and plenty of additional evidence to back up its claims. They promised us that the government would allow for plenty of due process within a reasonable amount of time. They also insisted that, after hearing nothing happening in the case for many months, it meant that no attempt to object to the seizure had occurred. Turns out… none of that was true.

What happened next is a story that should never happen in the US. It’s like something out of Kafka or the movie Brazil, but it should never have happened under the US Constitution. First, you have to understand the two separate processes: there’s seizure and then there’s forfeiture. Under the seizure laws, the government has 60 days from seizure to “notify” those whose property it seized (imagine having the government swoop in and take away your property, and not even being told why for two whole months). Once notified, the property owner has 35 days to file a claim to request the return of the property. If that doesn’t happen, the government can effectively just keep the property, so it tends to rely on intimidation and threats towards anyone who indicates plans to ask for their property back (usually in the form of threatening to file charges). However, if such a claim is filed, the government then has 90 days to start the full “forfeiture” process, which would allow the government to keep the seized property and never have to give it back. If the claim to return the property is filed and the government does not file for forfeiture, it is required to return the property. Thus seizures are supposedly used as a temporary part of the investigation, to stop criminal activity or to prevent the destruction of evidence. However, that’s not how things always play out in real life.

As we’d heard with a number of domain names that had been seized, the government began stalling like mad when contacted by representatives for domain holders seeking to get their domains back. ICE even flat out lied to the public, stating that no one was challenging the seizures, when it knew full well that some sites were, in fact, challenging. Out of that came the Rojadirecta case, but what of Dajaz1?

After continuing to stall and refusing to respond to Dajaz1′s filing requesting the domain be returned, the government told Dajaz1′s lawyer, Andrew P. Bridges, that it would begin forfeiture procedures (as required by law if it wanted to keep the domain). Bridges made clear that Dajaz1 would challenge the forfeiture procedure and seek to get the domain name back at that time. Then, the deadline for the government to file for forfeiture came and went and nothing apparently happened. Absolutely nothing. Bridges contacted the government to ask what was going on, and was told that the government had received an extension from the court. Bridges, quite reasonably, asked how that was possible without him, as counsel for the site, being informed of it or given a chance to make the case for why such an extension was improper.

He also asked for a copy of the the court’s order allowing the extension. The government told him no and that the extension was filed under seal and could not be released, even in redacted form.

He asked for the motion papers asking for the extension. The government told him no and that the papers were filed under seal and could not be released, even in redacted form.

He again asked whether he would be notified about further filings for extensions. The government told him no.

He then asked the US attorney to inform the court that, if the government made another request for an extension, the domain owner opposed the extension and would like the opportunity to be heard. The government would not agree.

And file further extensions the government did. Repeatedly. Or, at least that’s what Bridges was told. He sent someone to investigate the docket at the court, but the docket itself was secret, meaning there was no record of any of this available.

The government was required to file for forfeiture by May. The initial (supposed) secret extension was until July. Then it got another one that went until September. And then another one until November… or so the government said. When Bridges asked the government for some proof that it had actually obtained the extensions in question, the government attorney told Bridges that he would just have “trust” him.

Finally, the government decided that it would not file a forfeiture complaint — because there was no probable cause – and it let the last (supposed) extension expire. Only after Bridges asked again for the status of the domain did the government indicate that it would return the domain to its owner — something that finally happened today. Dajaz1.com is finally back in the hands of its rightful owner. This is really quite incredible, considering the “rush” with which it seized these domain names, claiming the urgency in stopping a crime in progress. But, of course, after realizing that it had no evidence to suggest a crime was ever in progress – there was absolutely no urgency to correct the error.

The level of secrecy in this case makes it sound like a terrorist investigation, not the censorship of a popular music blog. Normally, when there’s a lawsuit, the docket is available on PACER. Even in cases where things are filed under seal or everything is redacted, there’s at least a placeholder for them in PACER. This case does not exist anywhere that anyone can find. The docket was apparently kept hidden in a judge’s office in Los Angeles the whole time. No one knew this was going on, other than the US Attorney and the representatives of Dajaz1 (who still never saw the docket or the extension orders).

Let’s just take stock here for a second. We have the government clearly censoring free speech in the form of a blog that discussed the music world and was widely recognized for its influence in promoting new acts. The government seized the blog with no adversarial hearing and no initial due process. Then, rather than actually provide some sort of belated due process in the form of an adversarial hearing, it continued to deny any and all due process by secretly (even to Dajaz1′s own lawyer) extending the seizure without any way to challenge those extensions. All in all, the government completely censored a popular web site for over a year, when it had no real evidence for probable cause of infringement, as it had falsely claimed in the original rubber stamped affidavit. As we noted in reviewing the affidavit, the case had been put together by folks who clearly did not understand the law, the site or the music space. But to then double down on that and continue to hold the domain for a year in secret? That just compounds the error and takes it to new extremes.

This was flat out censorship for no reason, for an entire year, by the US government… Everyone should be horrified by this. It also shows what a joke the claims of supporters are that since “a judge reviewed the affidavit,” there’s due process. Without the other party, there is no real due process. Not only that, but the government made sure, at every step of the way, that the other party was not heard. That’s horrifying. It wasn’t just an act of omission in leaving out the party, but actively preventing the party from being heard.

And yet the feds and private companies continue to say we should just “trust them” to get these kinds of things right? Even more bizarre, they want to expand their ability to do this incontestable censorship through laws like PROTECT IP and SOPA? If anything, this massive screwup on the part of ICE, the Justice Department and the RIAA should lead us to go in the other direction. ICE and the DOJ should be investigated and reprimanded, if not directly penalized, for clear First Amendment violations, while the ICE program for seizing domains should be dismantled. John Morton, who led ICE’s domain seizure program, should tender his resignation or be fired. Victoria Espinel, the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, who defended these seizures to Congress, should issue a public apology, and begin a process to revamp the government’s role in such enforcement actions (and consider tendering her resignation as well). The federal government should issue a huge apology to the operators of Dajaz1 and make it clear that it will no longer take such drastic censorship actions. The RIAA should be investigated for providing claims about the site that were not true, and which it had no right to make.

If Congress needs to do anything, it should be to investigate the lawless, unconstitutional, cowboy censorship and blocking of due process by both Homeland Security and the Justice Department. The last thing it should be doing is allowing more such actions. This whole thing has been a disgrace by the US government, starting with a bogus seizure, improper and illegal censorship, followed by denial of due process and unnecessary secrecy. Dajaz1 is currently reviewing its options in terms of whether it can or should take further action as a result of this, but at least it has its domain back. And people wonder why we’re so concerned about these seizures and new proposals to further such censorship.

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