Author: Stephen Kent

People renting backyard pools told to stop operating ‘public pools’

Backyard pools across the Triangle are available for rent, advertised on the Swimply app as ‘Hidden Gem’, ‘Private Oasis’ and ‘Tropical Retreat.’

However, some hosts on the site are getting push back from local officials. The hosts are being told to stop operating as a “public pool” or face consequences.

There is no law in North Carolina governing backyard pool rentals specifically; but guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services says if you rent out your backyard pool, the pool is considered public.

Orange County said they were following that guidance when they sent a letter to Chris Paolucci telling him to stop operating the pool in his backyard as a public pool.

Paolucci is a Swimply host and has been renting his backyard pool to others who may not have pool access.

“It gives that opportunity for people without, and it gives us an opportunity to cover our costs,” Paolucci told 5 On Your Side.

Swimply works like other sharing apps Airbnb and Vrbo, but it’s just for pools and visitors can rent by the hour.

“Typical it’s like 2 to 5 people coming, small families,” Paolucci explained about his experience hosting on Swimply.

Paolucci said he was confused when he got the letter from Orange County. The letter said Paolucci needed to have a public pool plan review, a commercial grade pool and an operational permit from the county to keep operating as a public pool.

Read the full text here

Consumer Choice Center rejects the DOJ’s politicized attack on Google

Google is about to fight the first serious antitrust battle of the 21st century. Beginning this week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will argue in federal court that Google engaged in anticompetitive practices to maintain its status as the most popular search engine in the world. 

The claim, being put before Obama appointee Judge Amit P. Mehta, is that Google wrongfully entered into exclusivity agreements with smartphone manufacturers, including Apple and Samsung, to preinstall its search engine as the default option on their device web browsers. 

Stephen Kent, Media Director for the Consumer Choice Center, an international consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said of the DOJ’s case, “Antitrust cases like this are predicated on the false assumption that consumers have been duped into using a product, even when that product is broadly accepted as the gold standard for its industry. This is a waste of time for our court system.” 

The lawsuit was originally brought in October 2020 by then-Attorney General Bill Barr, during the final months of the Trump administration. The suit contends that Google has illegally kept the public from easy access to Microsoft’s Bing, Mozilla, and DuckDuckGo for online searches. If Judge Mehta agrees, Google could be forced to restructure. 

Default search engine deals are commonplace in the development of web browsers. Consumers enjoy ready-to-use products and expect a quality experience. That’s why Mozilla canceled its deal with Yahoo in 2017 for a default search arrangement, reinstating Google Search. So many consumers were switching manually, Mozilla responded in an effort to protect their own brand.

The Consumer Choice Center stands against this politicized attack by the Department of Justice on Google. Mobile device manufacturers want consumers to have a top-notch experience when using their product, and presetting Google as the search engine is within their right. “I’ve used DuckDuckGo on my iPhone now for several years, and even now it takes just four clicks to switch back to Google, Bing or Yahoo,” Kent continued, “This suit is about distracting Google from its core business, bogging them down to prevent further growth, and making an example of a major tech company for political points at a time of bipartisan skepticism of the tech sector. This does nothing to improve consumer welfare, and will harm future innovation that consumers demand.”

Biden’s Department of Energy doesn’t know what will save Virginians money

In the first weeks of 2022, it came time to replace a number of appliances in our Manassas, Virginia home.

The attic’s insulation was no longer effective and the AC/heating system was struggling to push air into every room.

Thanks to a detail-focused handyman, we also learned that the water heater was in dire need of replacement.

HVAC repair was enough to bust whatever budget we had in mind for home repairs to get us through winter, and the subject of also buying a water heater was insult atop injury.

We considered our options and financed a new $800 water heater and far more expensive HVAC system at 9.99% interest over a 12-month period.

Like everyday consumers across America, my wife and I have the most intimate understanding of our finances and the conflicting priorities within our monthly budget.

Does Joe Biden’s administration and his Department of Energy under Jennifer Granholm, presume to know what was best for us when we needed new home appliances?

In July, Biden’s DOE released new proposed energy-efficiency standards for water heaters, following a contentious few months of defending their intent to restrict consumer’s use of gas range stoves.

The administration both defended its policy while simultaneously claiming the coming restrictions were pure fiction dreamed up by their opponents in Congress.

Come 2029, these regulations would mandate that new boiler installations employ electric heat pumps. These heat pumps draw warmth from the surrounding air to heat water, as opposed to internally heating the water.

The standards for traditional gas-fired water heaters will be tightened, with the inevitable effect of increased costs.

The economics of this are quite simple. Heat pump water heaters are more energy-efficient machines because they take in surrounding heat rather than having to create every bit of heat from nothing.

Consumers stand to save several hundred dollars per year on a heat pump system. The Biden administration and its environmentalist hawks favor pumps because they produce less emissions than gas boilers.

The problem is that heat pump water heaters are more expensive, sitting anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 upfront for the device — whereas conventional gas heaters are usually only $500 to $1,000.

In a perfect world, consumers would think long-term about every expenditure and investment they make. But since we live in the real world, people are just trying to get to tomorrow.

Collectively, Americans now owe over $1 trillion in credit card debt, led primarily by credit card balances.

Virginia is in the top 10 nationwide, with the average Virginian needing at least 13 months to pay down their balances, according to a study by WalletHub.

A lot of us are spending money we don’t have, and it’s gotten so bad during this period of high inflation that even groceries are being purchased on credit in record numbers. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone, I’ve been there.

If you’re debt-free or financially secure, the DOE rules which would force you toward a more expensive and efficient water heater will not seem like a big deal.

If you’re like the millions of Americans treading water due to the rising costs of living, that water heater will more than likely go onto your credit card tab. With credit card delinquency rates rising, any savings from energy efficiency will disappear.

The ugly thing about making big purchases on credit is that you’re gambling on nothing else bad happening in the no-interest period of the debt. In our case, go figure, more bad stuff happened. Fifteen months later we’re still paying for that financed water heater and sorting through the accumulated interest.

The White House has recycled DOE Secretary Granholm’s talking point about consumers saving around $1,000 over the lifetime of the heat pump water heaters, but don’t be surprised if they quietly walk back the projected consumer savings like just happened with the Department of Energy’s report on gas stove regulations.

Regardless of whether one device or another saves my family money month to month by being more energy-efficient, regulators don’t know what’s going on in my life or my bank account.

Consumers will buy the products they need when they need them and in the case of expensive appliances, that probably just means adding to their debt. Consumers truly save money when they can afford the products they buy and get to choose from a wide range of appliances on the market.

We’ll manage our home, Secretary Granholm, you manage yours.

Originally published here

FTC prepares to take on Amazon

The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly considering action against Amazon amid concerns it has grown into a monopoly. Stephen Kent of the Consumer Choice Center joins Jim on “The Final 5” to explain why he thinks it’s a losing proposition of FTC chair Lina Khan.

Watch the interview here

Harm reduction, not policing, will boost public health in Alabama

By: Elizabeth Hicks & Stephen Kent

In a landmark move earlier this year, Alabama state lawmakers passed first-of-its-kind legislation effectively outlawing the use of cigarettes and vaping products in vehicles when a child 14 years of age or younger is present. That law is now in effect statewide. While the intent behind this legislation is undoubtedly noble, the treatment of vaping and smoking as equals is going to cause real harm in Alabama. This will not go the way lawmakers think. 

The idea of the new law is simple. Adults should not be subjecting young children to cigarette smoke and adversely impacting their health when the kids have no say in the matter. Smoking, after all, is a choice that adult consumers make for themselves. 

Older folks who grew up in the heyday of cigarette smoking often share some memories of being in smokey cars with the windows rolled up, toughing it out at a time when smokers weren’t widely aware of the hazard posed by second-hand smoke to their passengers. That time is past. 

Acknowledging this fact, we have to all ask ourselves what protection is owed to young passengers in the car with smokers, and also what kind of laws will reduce harm for both children and their parent/guardian in the driver’s seat. Alabama Representative Rolanda Hollis made an effort to address this in HB3, but the law’s failure to make distinctions between cigarettes and vape products which have been shown to be 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes, is not going to be a net benefit to public health. 

Alabama is a state that sees a staggering number of smoking-related fatalities, close to 8,600 deaths annually, along with nearly $309 million in Medicaid costs incurred by the state. Reducing these harms is important, and it should start with incentivizing cigarette smokers to switch. Passing laws that insinuate the two products are equally harmful reads to a smoker as an excuse to keep on with the product they’re accustomed to. Switching can be hard, but the potential for small social benefits like not being kicked to the curb every time you want to smoke is one of those things that makes the switch to vaping easier. The same goes for smokers behind the steering wheel. 

Harm reduction strategies work. There is little evidence, however, to show that punitive measures like $100 fines for smoking in the car whilst parenting is going to be a boon to public health in states like Alabama. 

As is well known, cigarettes contain a harmful cocktail of chemicals and tar, which contribute to respiratory diseases and cancer. These components are not present in the vapor produced by e-cigarettes.  Toxicologist Igor Burstyn of Drexel University noted that the contents of e-cig vapor “justifies surveillance,” but that exhaled vapor contains so little contamination that the risk to bystanders is insignificant. This has been supported by Public Health England’s updated review of evidence in 2018. 

Tacking financial penalties to vaping in the car, even with the windows down and fresh air flowing in, smacks of the early days of COVID-19 alarmism when police were arresting people for being outside at public beaches or doing watersports. When it comes to vaping, the level of risk and the effort that will be required to police the activity, just don’t line up. 

Yes, nicotine fuels both products in question, and there’s no getting away from its addictive qualities for the smoker. If the Heart of Dixie wants to lead the way in protecting public health, it is never too late to embrace harm reduction strategies when it comes to smoking. 

Elizabeth Hicks is the U.S. Affairs Analyst and Stephen Kent is the Media Director for the Consumer Choice Center

What would George Lucas say about the Hollywood strikes?

Hollywood has ground to a halt amid a united front between the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Writers Guild of America, striking together now for a combined three months. Scripted productions are frozen, red carpet premiers are without stars, and there is no real timeline for when struck studios might be able to return to business as usual. 

While Hollywood’s labor unions lock arms in pursuit of higher pay, better residual deals, and some kind of limitation on the use of artificial intelligence in production, there’s a bit of side-eye being thrown toward those in the entertainment industry who won’t fall in line.

The Chosen, a historical drama centered on the life of Jesus Christ, is carrying on with shooting its fourth season following an exemption granted by SAG-AFTRA. The popular Christian series is a production of Angel Studios, which most notably has been the distributor for the recent hit film The Sound of Freedom — a film that chronicles the dark underworld of global child sex trafficking. 

Showrunner Dallas Jenkins moved quickly to apply with SAG-AFTRA for an exemption from the work stoppage for actors on The Chosen, and it seems that their independent approach to entertainment is paying off. The show’s new season will continue shooting, thanks to consumers who backed nearly $37 million in crowdfunding on the show’s first two seasons. The Chosen has since then made it by on only donations and without licensing deals.

How refreshing it is to see creatives at work, free to build things without the permission of coercive labor unions. Operations such as that of Angel Studios and The Chosen Productions have made huge waves in recent months for their unique faith-based approach to content and for offering their investors a piece of equity in the production companies themselves.

It’s a rarely utilized way of doing business, made possible by a provision in former President Barack Obama’s 2016 JOBS Act, but one you could imagine Hollywood renegades such as George Lucas having longed for when he built the Star Wars empire.

Lucas loathed the Hollywood labor unions. Throughout his rise from underdog film student to box office king, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones had little to no patience for the strictures unions sought to place on his work. One of many clashes occurred in 1980, when for the second time, George Lucas insisted that Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back begin with the iconic “opening crawl” instead of directorial credits. 

In this instance, the credit would have gone to Irvin Kershner, whom he tapped to lead the most critically acclaimed Star Wars film to this day. The unions made their regulation clear to Lucas, and after Lucas sued and took them to court, the visionary behind Star Wars opted to pay the $25,000 fine and resign from the guild. Lucas would always fight the studios and unions in defense of his artistic vision and business priorities.

When you think about how iconic the opening sequence of a Star Wars film is, it’s easy to see why Lucas dug in his heels. “I consider it extortion,” he said of the fight with the guilds.

Years earlier, when Lucas was shooting the first Star Wars film at Elstree Studios just beyond London, he collided with British unions over their stiffly regulated work schedule for stage crews. Lucas is known to be a workhorse and somewhat unempathetic when it comes to the needs of his cast and crew, but the twice-daily mandated tea times at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. were beyond the pale for the busybody director — not to mention the 5:30 p.m. forced stop time right after tea.

Every member of a film production, from the top of the chain to the bottom, has a cross to bear. For Lucas, it was deadlines and managing the ballooning production budget, and he understood that union concerns were detached from his goals as an ambitious creative. It motivated everything from Lucas’s selection of non-union director Richard Marquand to direct Return of the Jedi to the location of his Lucasfilm compound in San Francisco, buying him physical distance from the studios and industry enforcers he so resented.

Perhaps it was his entrepreneurial and more conservative father, but Lucas never had any respect for the Hollywood patronage system enforced by studios and the various guilds. Despite being a model post-Vietnam liberal Democrat on every other issue of the day, Lucas rebelled his way to incredible success.

Creative work requires truly creative people, and the most successful and innovative creators will always be troublemakers. The false choice created by union-dominated industries is solidarity with your colleagues or less access to opportunity. Unions can serve a purpose and may well be necessary in a town such as Hollywood, where penny-pinching often comes at the expense of the lowest-paid crew members, but the coercive nature of union membership will always undermine any benevolent role they play.

Originally published here

A NEW FRONT LINE: The latest skirmish in the short-term rental wars involves swimming pools.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the potential demise of Airbnb. The homesharing platform deemed innovative by some, and a nuisance by others, has helped to define the public debate over sharing apps that have transformed downtowns nationwide with e-scooters, rented condos and the presence of Uber and Lyft cars on every street corner. Those local debates have been fierce in North Carolina metros, including Raleigh-Durham, Asheville, Wilmington and Charlotte, and have given way to a tenuous compromise in the state between tech companies, homeowners and established players in the hospitality and tourism industry.

But Airbnb’s steep revenue declines, close to 50% drops in Asheville, Myrtle Beach and Austin, show that regulation designed with only one technology in mind will make it harder to adapt as new tech emerges. Look no further than the troubles surrounding Swimply, a pool-sharing app not dissimilar in concept from Airbnb, which is causing a stir in Orange County.

Homeowners in the Chapel Hill-Hillsborough area were served with threatening letters from the Orange County Health Department (OCHD) for using Swimply to rent out their backyard pool by the hour to customers on the other end of the app. Does that transaction transform a homeowner’s private pool into a public pool? Here you see where common sense and regulatory policy don’t overlap.

The OCHD says in its letter, “When an owner or resident of a single-family dwelling opens use of that dwelling’s pool to the general public, especially for rent, they are explicitly expanding the use of the pool to users beyond the private use of the dwelling’s residents and their guests, and the pool is no longer private.”

This language implies that making money from the sharing of your pool is certainly problematic but also leaves room for it to be an issue if you were just opening your backyard gate to anyone looking to cool off for free.

Operating a party house or poolside hangout spot for college students won’t get you a Neighbor of the Year award, but it doesn’t mean you’re running a “public pool.”

The ill-fated argument put forward by Orange County is that a private pool becomes classified as a public one if it’s being rented out on a digital app like Swimply. So, a homeowner near UNC with a quiet, backyard pool that sees a few rental guests per week must then face the same level of code enforcement, chemical maintenance and property inspection as, say, Woodcroft Swim & Tennis Club in Durham, which sees hundreds if not thousands of swimmers a week. It’s ill-fated because this approach to regulation has been tried in other states, such as Wisconsin, where the Department of Health Services was set straight by the state’s Consumer Protection department after pushback from the pool, yard and tennis court sharing app.

Put simply, Swimply cannot be singled out for regulation just because they are not mentioned by name in state law for governing vacation rental properties. In principle, the business model and features of an app like this are covered by the allowances made for private property owners who’ve made use of Airbnb or other apps to generate supplemental income off their property.

An Airbnb host in Burlington could in theory offer their entire home for daily rental, including its amenities: kitchen, laundry, ping pong tables and an outdoor pool, with no interference. That property could see an equal number of guests per week as a Swimply listing, but the only difference is that the Airbnb guests would also be utilizing overnight accommodations in addition to a swimming pool.

Why would it be the business of public health regulators to police backyard swimming, but only for people who will be there for an hour or two as opposed to overnight? This is the question that regulators in Orange County have yet to contend with, and the issue remains unresolved at the expense of homeowners and sharing app users who want to enjoy private pool access during a summer that promises extreme heat statewide. Either the state of North Carolina believes in private property rights and a level playing field for innovation, or it doesn’t.

North Carolina has a workable framework in place for the sharing economy in the longstanding Vacation Rental Act, but it’s going to have to be either modified or supplemented by new legislation to add clarity for property owners and consumers alike who enjoy innovations in the sharing economy. Senate Bill 667 stands as one such piece of legislation that could bring an end to the harassment of North Carolina homeowners by misguided health department officials. The bill, championed by state Sen. Tim Moffitt (R-Henderson, Polk and Rutherford), would in essence preempt localities from banning short-term rentals or imposing onerous costs to listing private property.

No doubt, the measure presents a clash of values for its Republican backers, who on the one hand tend to favor local control as opposed to dictates from Raleigh about how towns should be managed. However, the competing value — that of property rights protected under state law — makes SB 667 a worthwhile consideration for conflicted lawmakers.

Whether it’s SB 667 or something new in a coming legislative session, the legislature owes North Carolinians clarity about their right to rent private property, whether it be backyards, pools, hot tubs, spare rooms or whole single-family homes.

Originally published here

Microsoft, Activision extend deal deadline to Oct. 18

Activision Blizzard and Microsoft agreed on Wednesday to extend the deadline for their merger agreement to Oct. 18 as the companies continue to work on gaining approval from regulators.

“Given global regulatory approvals and the companies’ confidence that CMA now recognizes there are remedies available to meet their concerns in the UK, the Activision Blizzard and Microsoft boards of directors have authorized the companies not to terminate the deal until after October 18,” Activision Blizzard CCO Lulu Cheng Meservey said in a tweet.

The two U.S. companies originally agreed to close the deal by July 18, but U.S. regulatory efforts to block the takeover and Britain’s push to restructure it have delayed the close.

On Tuesday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan rejected a last-minute attempt to stop Microsoft’s $69 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard.

A group of gamers filed a request asking the high court for an emergency injunction to halt the merger and prevent Microsoft from gaining control of popular games like Call of Duty, Candy Crush and World of Warcraft.

“You can see in this case how fearmongering from the FTC has misled a small number of gamers about the stakes of the Microsoft-Activision deal,” said Stephen Kent, media director at the Consumer Choice Center.

Read the full text here

FTC loses case to block Microsoft Activision $69B deal

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission cannot stop Microsoft’s proposed $69 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard, a California judge ruled on Tuesday.

The deal, originally announced 17 months ago, can now move forward by the July 18 deadline. 

In her ruling, Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley said, “Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision has been described as the largest in tech history,” and “it deserves scrutiny.”

Microsoft has committed in writing, in public, and in court to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation for 10 years on parity with Xbox,” she continued. “It made an agreement with Nintendo to bring Call of Duty to Switch. And it entered several agreements for the first-time to bring Activision’s content to several cloud gaming services.”

“The Court finds the FTC has not shown a likelihood it will prevail on its claim this particular vertical merger in this specific industry may substantially lessen competition, and “the motion for a preliminary injunction is therefore denied,” Corley added.

The Activision purchase will give Microsoft ownership of popular video game titles like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush.

The FTC wanted to block the deal because the trade regulator believed Activision’s incorporation into Microsoft would hurt competition in the video game industry.

In an interview with FOX Business, Stephen Kent at the Consumer Choice Center, said “Judge Corley showed a deep respect for consumer interest, namely the gamers who will be most impacted by Microsoft acquiring Activision-Blizzard. 

“Biden’s FTC under Lina Khan has shown no interest in consumer protection, as illustrated throughout the hearings and pointed out on the final day by Judge Corley herself,” he said. “President Biden should be taking note of how poor FTC Chair Lina Khan has been at her job, and how far she’s strayed from the mission of consumer protection.”

Read the full text here

Judge Strikes Another Blow Against Biden’s Activist FTC With Ruling in Microsoft-Activision Merger

A federal judge in California struck another blow against President Biden’s activist Federal Trade Commission chief, Lina Khan, by denying a government request to block Microsoft’s pending acquisition of gaming giant Activision Blizzard.

Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley of California’s Northern District said Tuesday the FTC failed to make a compelling case that the $70 billion deal between the two tech giants would harm consumer choice in the video game market. She denied the agency’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking the transaction until it could fight the merger at an internal court.

“The FTC has not raised serious questions regarding whether the proposed merger is likely to substantially lessen competition in the console, library subscription services, or cloud gaming markets,” Judge Corley wrote.

Consumer advocates praised the ruling as yet another rebuke for Ms. Khan, one of the more activist FTC leaders in recent memory. A Biden appointee, Ms. Khan has been crusading against what she has called “exploitative,” “collusive,” and “abusive” tactics in the technology industry, using the FTC’s antitrust oversight as her primary bludgeon. Another judge blocked the FTC’s attempt earlier this year to stop Meta from taking over a virtual reality fitness company, Within Unlimited.

“The FTC set out, it seems, to protect the business interests of Sony’s PlayStation, completely ignoring their duty to regulate in the interest of American consumers,” the media director for the Consumer Choice Center, Stephen Kent, said. “President Biden should be taking note of how poor FTC Chair Lina Khan has been at her job, and how far she’s strayed from the mission of consumer protection.”

Read the full text here

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