Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Banana Tree: an Indolicious stop in Mayfair

Recently me and my other half headed into London’s West End for a meal on the town. While gallivanting past our usual haunts, such as The Stockpot, Balans, Amalfi and Browns we crawled out of our comfort zone and decided to try something new. At the end of Old Compton Street, we turned right onto Wardour Street where Soho turns into Mayfair and a range of appealing and alluring restaurants can be found. 

Although Byron immediately attracted my attention because of the good vibe and its lively crowd (especially for a Tuesday night), the menu was simply off-putting. The place offers hardly any choice and the cook seems to have an unrestrained obsession for beef, resulting in a menu consisting of chicken burgers, veggie burgers and beef burgers. So, undoubtedly, if you are looking for a decent quality burger this is certainly the place to be, but if a slightly more sophisticated kitchen it is you are after, it would not hurt to try another popular joint a few doors down the road, namely the much more appealing eatery of the Banana Tree, part of a chain of six restaurants throughout London, it offers an authentic selection of dishes and specialties from the Indochina region.

The grand but personal room is a designer-free zone with its shiny, wood-grain tables and black brick walls on one side (with a huge image of what is most likely rush hour in Vietnam) while the other half of the restaurant has a more serene and light ambiance to it. The place breathes trendiness and modernity, and it certainly has a proper ‘city’ feel to it. We were seated at a table in the centre of the restaurant where we could soak in the lively, vibrant atmosphere created by a loud, outgoing audience, without being too much in your face. The restaurant fills up quickly but the noise is not unrelenting: it is not necessary to shout in order to make yourself heard, while one can easily hold a private conversation without being overheard.

While studying the trendy brown and black menu card, which had a bit of an exotic touch to it, we were overwhelmed by the excellent, original choices. The menu invites its customers on a culinary tour through the region of South East Asia, offering all the best that Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have to offer. What about ‘a four hour meltingly tender stew with star anise, closed, cinnamon and galangal, prepared with a Vietnamese slant, using coconut water to sweeten the sauce’, or the Gaening Keo Wan, which goes down as an ‘aromatic Thai curry cooked with green spice paste, sweet basil, lime leaves, peppers, bamboo shoots and coconot milk’; finger licking descriptions that certainly got us mouthwatering. I decided to play it safe and ordered the ‘chicken lemongrass, turmeric and coriander’, while my other half opted for the roasted duck breast with Pei Pa Hoisin Sauce, as recommended by William Chow, the founder and chef of Banana Tree. In next to no time the polite waitress brought us a bottle of their decent house red, a French Jacques Veritier.

Soon – perhaps slightly too rapid – the food was brought in and really got our taste buds going. The unpretentious portions were faultlessly presented and staff checked on us to made sure we were satisfied. My chicken was sweet with a delicious spicy aftertaste that made you long for the next gnaw. The savory and aromatic sauce, consisting of lemongrass, coriander and turmeric, was complimented with peanuts, peppers and oriental veggies. The ‘added dash of fish sauce’, as stated on the menu, could not be identified, surely the spices and lemongrass dominated and with chicken as the backbone of the dish adding fish sauce seemed a bit out of place. Meanwhile, my partner took proper care of his roasted duck breast, which was presented excellently. Even if duck is not your thing, you might reconsider given the fact it was tastefully topped with mildly spiced hoisin and a sesame sauce, served with cashews and coriander. Simply divine! 

The quality of our dishes seemed to shine through the entire dining experience at this trendy 40-seater. It has a vibrant crowd of any age and culture and breathes a relaxed, open-minded atmosphere. It is reasonably priced and I will definitely come back to try the Dirty Thai Guy, one of the many interestingly named cocktails on their menu. From the well-balanced, flavorsome dishes to the friendly and easy going staff, Banana Tree truly is the home of the Indochinese cuisine in London’s West End.

Banana Tree
103 Wardour Street - Mayfair

Michiel Willems © May 2012 Pictures: The Local Data Company / FluidLondon.co.uk / Londonchow.com.


Friday, 18 May 2012

if only privacy wasn’t such an issue

Millions of people use apps
The use of mobile applications has been on the rise ever since mobile apps became popular in 2008. The term ‘app’ was named ‘Word of the Year’ by the American Dialect Society in 2010 and at the end of 2011, more than half a million third-party apps were available globally. Nowadays, tens of millions of people around the world use mobile applications on a daily basis. 

For large, consumer-facing companies it is almost impossible not to offer your customers a decent mobile application these days. The increasing use of mobile apps has made many products and services more appealing, attractive and accessible, and has become part of many self-respecting companies’ branding and marketing strategy. 

However, downloading a mobile app is not a one way street. Although the user is offered information, a product or a service, security issues and privacy concerns are increasingly being addressed by regulators around the world. In the United States, mobile apps have caught the attention of the Federal Trace Commission and the US Congress has expressed its concerns about mobile apps sharing data and copying information. The White House, as well as the US Department of Commerce, have also announced that they will take action to regulate the mobile app ecosystem. 

Allow or reject?
A few companies that have gone too far in gathering information from their customers have highlighted the need to strike a balance between information sharing and invasions of privacy. Last February, San Francisco-based Path – ‘the smart journal that helps you share life with the ones you love’ – shared a bit more than users thought they were signing up to, it quietly uploaded users' iPhone address books without permission. A week later, it turned out that the users of the feature ‘Find Friends’, on the social media website Twitter, handed over every phone number and email address in their phone, something they were not aware of and Twitter had not clarified. 

Shortly after Twitter came clean, Foursquare, Foodspotting, Facebook, Instagram and a number of other companies announced they planned to clarify their privacy policies. Industry experts believe these companies are just some of the numerous businesses that store user information to, ultimately, use for advertising purposes. The app developer Dustin Curtis wrote on his blog that it was ‘essentially standard practice for app developers to send users’ entire address books to their servers for storage without their permission’.   

A range of apps
But not only address books are copied, sensitive location data is often also collected. Many US politicians wonder ‘How could this happen?’. As a result, the new Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law has started its first hearings on 10 May. Chaired by the Democratic Senator Al Franken, Members include the Deputy Director of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rich, Justin Brookman, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, and as Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein. On the witness list are Apple and Google, amongst others. The Subcommittee will aim to ‘make certain that protecting consumers’ privacy will keep pace with advances in technology’. 

And perhaps that is exactly where the problem lies, do current privacy laws properly cover rapidly evolving technologies that are being used in smartphones, tablets and cell phones? Given the latest developments, the answer should most likely be answered negatively. Is merely making recommendations to the industry sufficient, such as the FTC’s report, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers, published at the end of March, announcing to start a dialogue with the industry. This makes you wonder whether that approach is too naive: are many app developers really interested in privacy concerns? After all; the mobile apps industry is still growing rapidly and commercial advertising opportunities seem endless. The sky is the limit, if only privacy wasn’t such an issue.

Michiel Willems © May 2012 CP Publishing Ltd. London, UK. Pictures: Blog.toggle.com / Bullcitymobile.com

Thursday, 10 May 2012

FSA chief warns banks on old technology and slow payments

LONDON - The Managing Director of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), Martin Wheatley, has said - in a speech to the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland - that banks in the UK should update their technology and speed up payments. 

"Banks need to recognise their customers' increased expectations in a world where people can now, via faster payments, make payments 24 hours a day, seven days a week”, Wheatley said. “Old systems, and the reluctance of some banks to change ways of doing things, are becoming increasingly unacceptable to consumers and to us.” Wheatley warned that “if banks do not provide what consumers want, the new entrants might".

Wheatley also said that British banks should treat their customers better, referring to a letter the FSA sent to banks last January “to encourage a more proactive approach”. As an example, he pointed out the requirement to ensure payments reach the payee's account by the end of the following business day, which some banks fail to tackle to ensure compliance. "I cannot understand why something as straightforward and helpful to the customer as this, is so hard to do", Wheatley said.

Michiel Willems © May 2012 CPP Ltd. London, UK.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

US strongly divided over controversial intelligence law

Public opinion in the United States is hugely divided over a new law that would allow technology and manufacturing companies and the US Government to share sensitive data.

On 26 April, the House of Representatives passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which was introduced in November 2011 and aims to fight cyberattacks and online crime. Although more than 800 US companies - including Facebook, IBM, Verizon and AT&T - support the law, CISPA is fiercely opposed by privacy groups, journalists and civil rights organisations, such as Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

CISPA will “almost definitely” violate civil rights and invade privacy, said James Skyles, a Partner at Skyles Law in Mount Prospect, Illinois. He understands, however, why companies support the proposed legislation: “The economic impact of data information sharing would be a positive one.”

“Are you asking me, does the bill leave open the possibility of the government egregiously violating citizens’ civil rights? Sure, if the feds do not follow the parameters of when and what kind of information they are entitled to share”, said Aaron Kelly, of Kelly Warner in Temple, Arizona.

“CISPA goes too far for little reason", said Michelle Richardson, of the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union. "Cybersecurity does not have to mean abdication of Americans' online privacy. The government gets expansive national security authorities, there is no going back. We encourage the Senate to let this horrible bill fade into obscurity.”

However, Cordell Carter, Vice President of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers in Washington D.C., thinks “CISPA is a very positive and important piece of legislation. This law represents the best, most flexible and effective approach to developing a more robust and responsive cybersecurity infrastructure”. Carter is convinced “improved information sharing will help protect US national security and economic interests”.

Under CISPA, which is an amendment to the National Security Act of 1947, government agencies would be permitted to share data with private businesses, and companies may share information with the government on a voluntary basis. “Whether or not [CISPA] succeeds can only be determined by whether or not the private sector takes advantage of the new freedoms”, said Skyles. “It is a horse to water issue. The law does not force anyone to do anything, it merely opens up the doors.”

Since participating businesses would enjoy full legal immunity from any legal action brought by consumers who wish their data remains private, Skyles expects “issues [will] arise as to whether or not an individual can waive certain privacy rights by clicking ‘I accept’ on an end user licensing agreement. People do this every day without even thinking about it.”

Kelly, however, remarks “most people would probably be shocked to find out how much of their information is currently being used and collected by advertisers already”, and points out that, even if the Bill is eventually signed into law, it does include a provision that gives citizens the right to sue the US Government: “It is probably going to come down to the first lawsuit. If a citizen believes their civil rights have been violated, and they decide to file a lawsuit against the feds, and win… well, that would set precedence.”    

CISPA stipulates that the responsibility for domestic cybersecurity would be handed over to the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland, which is a serious concern for Greg Nojeim, of the Center for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco. “[CISPA] leaves two key issues unresolved, the flow of information to the super-secret NSA and the broad purposes for which that information can be used." This is also a concern for Skyles: “[CISPA] is vaguely worded, which casts doubt as to both its impact and its enforceability.”

Kelly thinks it is “concerning that tech-savvy civilians could be given access to a heck of a lot of information.” He adds: “In theory, some of these social networking companies like Facebook are going to have to start vetting employees as vigorously as the CIA. As such, let’s face it, the potential for leaks skyrockets once the government decides to share information with civilians”, which makes Kelly wonder whether CISPA “is doing more to curtail national security as opposed to strengthening it”.

US President Obama
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama said he "strongly opposes" the law since “[CISPA] could seriously damage individuals' privacy”, adding that “any legislation should not be sacrificing the fundamental values of privacy and civil liberties”. The White House has indicated Obama may veto the Bill. However, Skyles is not impressed by Obama’s statement and calls the “veto threat largely a political one”. He explains: “The letter sent by the White House press office states that a cyber security law needs to set the correct balance between privacy issues and national security, yet they have given no suggestion as to how to strike that balance, nor have they given any indication as to what would satisfy their concerns.”

The Obama administration backs another piece of legislation, a Senate bill sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman, an Independent, and Susan Collins (Republican), that would give the Department for Homeland Security the power to set security standards. The US Senate is expected to vote on CISPA within the next two weeks.

Aaron Kelly is convinced the discussion is far from over: “Now the law has been passed by Congress, the average Jane and John are just learning about it, so I expect to see a lot more coverage of the issue, and we’ll start to see a citizen backlash. I have yet to talk to an individual internet user who is for CISPA.”

Michiel Willems © 2012 CP Publishing Ltd. London, UK. Pictures: Digitaltrends.com / Iowarepublican.com / TheOffside.com / Stuff.co.nz

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Interview - Sigrid Ligné, Secretary General of the EGBA

Sigrid Ligné
The European gambling and gaming market is experiencing dynamic times. In many of the major markets gambling and gaming laws have been - or are being - amended, and at European level a number of recent developments have taken place. Michiel Willems spoke to Sigrid Ligné, Secretary General of the European Gaming and Betting Association in Brussels, about new EU initiatives as well as recent legislative developments in Germany, Hungary, Greece, France and Italy. Ligné also discusses match fixing, website blocking and a number of recent rulings by the European Court of Justice.

The European gambling and gaming market is experiencing dynamic times. Many of the major markets are experiencing significant changes and at European level several developments have taken place. The close of 2011 saw the European Parliament change its attitude towards gambling regulation. The EP voted on 15 November in favour of the Creutzmann Report, which called for a European Directive providing minimum standards to regulate online gambling services across Europe. What is the value of this report?
Ligné: The Creutzmann report, supported by a large majority within the European Parliament is a turning point in the EU policy discussions on gambling. The report acknowledged for the first time that national standalone solutions are not efficient to tackle the cross border dimension of the sector and called for the adoption of an EU framework for online gambling. The Parliament also urged the European Commission as ‘guardian of the Treaties’  to pursue those infringement proceedings that have been pending since 2008 and to act swiftly upon receipt of complaints about violations of the freedoms enshrined in the Treaties.

The European Union’s Green Paper – published on 24 March 2011 - set the objective 'to contribute [...] to the emergence in the Member States of a legal framework for online gambling providing for greater legal certainty for all stakeholders' - an objective which seems to demonstrate the European Commission's will to play a more active role in European regulation of online gambling. What do you expect from this bold statement?
Ligné: Commissioner Barnier has played a key role in refueling the EU debate on online gambling. It was his personal initiative to launch the Green Paper consultation and to organise in parallel expert workshops on a number of key issues. Following the adoption of the Creutzmann report Commissioner Barnier confirmed 6 priority areas of action at EU level. The adoption of a Communication and a concrete action plan for online gambling is now scheduled for July or September 2012. 

We have high expectations of this process and are calling for the introduction of EU-level rules to safeguard adequate protection for consumers and at the same time ensure fair and transparent licensing conditions for EU operators. With the European Court drawing ever-clearer ‘red lines’ for national regulation, the European Commission has strong legal arguments to bring Member States in to cooperate.

Germany is potentially one of the largest and most lucrative markets in Europe. Through Schleswig-Holstein’s recently adopted gambling legislation – a liberal law that has legalised most forms of gambling – many operators believe they have found an opening into the massive German market. Do you think this will hold? What changes would you like to see in Germany?
Ligné: Germany has a turbulent history regarding its gambling legislation. It is a disappointment after so many years of non-compliance with EU law that 15 Länder may consider to ratify a new Interstate gambling Treaty which is not economically viable nor legally sustainable as confirmed by the critics expressed by the European Commission in a letter sent on the 21st March to the German authorities. This law is unsustainable and should be either dropped or substantially amended.
In contrast, the German Land of Schleswig-Holstein recently passed its own online gambling, which did not raise any objections from the European Commission. It should serve as a model.

Ever since the French market was opened to French and foreign operators, in 2011, the liberalisation has led to disappointment and complaints, resulting in operators pulling out of the market and the country’s regulator, ARJEL, announcing in March 2011 the need for reforms. Why is the ‘French model’ not working?
Ligné: A study published in 2011 estimated at € 8,7 millions the costs for an operator already regulated within the EU to obtain the license and comply with its very French technical and administrative requirements. But the so-called ‘French model’ is also based on a prohibitive tax rate, on a capped payback ratio, and on the very controversial Sport betting right.

Finally, it must be noted that online casino games are still prohibited in France. The French regulator confirmed that the economic model for the French online sports betting market was weak and ‘with the exception of the two incumbents FDJ and PMU, French licensed operators are not making profit’. The French model does not work because it is not competitive and does not meet consumer demand.
We have filed a complaint on several protectionist requirements of the law that the European Commission is currently looking into. Other complaints have been filed by local operators, notably with the French Competition authority.

Regarding the blocking of unregulated websites, courts in Germany have ruled that illegal, unlicensed websites cannot be blocked, France is doing the opposite. What is the EGBA’s stance on this? 
Ligné: Such blockings are highly questionable legally. Moreover, blockings are costly, easy to circumvent and drive consumers towards the black market as evidenced in all markets where such measures have been introduced. Despite website and financial blockings being introduced by the French gambling law of 2010, 57% of French consumers continued in 2011 to play on websites not licensed in France. The only way to channel consumers towards the regulated market is to provide them with an attractive and competitive legal offer.

The Hungarian Parliament has adopted - at the end of 2011 - a series of bills that comprehensively amends the country's gambling act. The radical changes, which have now come into force, are widely expected to have grave effects on the Hungarian gambling market. Is Hungary showing Europe the way forward?
Ligné: No, we still have strong concerns. The new Hungarian law still contains provisions which clearly violate EU law. Accordingly, we lodged a formal complaint to the European Commission a couple of weeks ago.

Match fixing and suspicious betting patterns have turned out to be significant issues in recent years. How do you think match fixing should be tackled? What should be the role of operators in this process?
Sporting heroes or criminals?
Ligné: Corruption in sport is a broad phenomenon that knows many motives. Studies have shown that doping is today the biggest threat accounting for nearly 96% of corruption cases and that match fixing is accounting for 3%, of which 1,5 % are betting related. Experts participating in a workshop organised by the European Commission in May 2011 confirmed that sports betting is not a threat in principle and that risks emanate from new technologies facilitating consumers’ access to unregulated online gambling offers mainly coming from the Asian markets. Regulated operators have a responsibility first to guarantee that their systems cannot be abused by fraudsters. Furthermore, through platforms such as the one successfully developed by the European Sport Security Association (ESSA), operators also play an important role in detecting suspicious betting patterns and in passing this information on to sports governing bodies and regulators for them to act on. 

Since it usually is a cross-border issue, do you think national regulators can combat match fixing, is there a role for the EC at European level?
Ligné: Yes we believe the EU has an important role to play. A uniform definition of sports fraud should be adopted at EU level and included in the criminal law of all Member States. It is also crucial that campaigns such as the one we have started a couple of years ago with EU Athletes, ESSA and the RGA to educate sportspeople about the risks, get the support of the EU and National Authorities.

Do you expect these problems will increase during the London Olympics, which is only months away?
Ligné: With regards to the upcoming Olympics, European regulated operators are already working hand in hand with the IOC and the competent Authorities. This collaboration aims at optimising the monitoring, detection and reporting of suspicious betting patterns and should minimise the risks.  

The cosy relationship between sports federations and operators is often fiercely criticised (cooperation, sponsorship, exchange of information). What is your take on this? How close can these relationships be?
Ligné: The very purpose of such partnerships is to create a positive association between the operator and sports organisers. This creates incentive to ensure the integrity of the relevant sporting event, as both the operator’s brand and the sport event’s reputation are on the line. It is essential that such partnerships remain closed to unregulated operators but it serves no-one to prevent highly responsible and licensed EU operators to sign sports partnerships as is currently the case in Poland and several other jurisdictions.

The Greek Gambling law has been fiercely criticised in recent months, especially its tax stipulations. Should the Greek Government press ahead with this law?
Ligné: The law blatantly runs counter to key provisions of EU law and has already triggered several complaints at EU and national level. The law is not sustainable.  If the Greek government decided to press ahead it would not only deliver a poor and uncompetitive offer to consumers but it would also expose itself ultimately to sanctions.

The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled it is against European Union laws for Member States to 'discriminate against new operators under the aegis of consumer protection'. The CJEU decided in its long-awaited ruling in the joint Costa and Cifone cases that Member States 'cannot protect vested economic interests' by restricting access to individual markets for new operators'. What will be the impact of this decision? 
Ligné: Italy has proved to be fertile grounds for the development of gambling jurisprudence by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).  The CJEU already ruled in previous case law that economic interests cannot be a justification for restricting the market, although in this recent ruling the conclusions are particularly clear.
The Costa and Cifone ruling might be even more significant for setting for the first time a detailed set of requirements that licensing authorities need to comply with. Not only should the licensing rules be clear and predictable for the operator, but according to the CJEU the award of licenses should “be based on objective, non-discriminatory criteria which are known in advance, in such a way as to circumscribe the exercise of the national authorities’ discretion.” The Court further explains that “the purpose underlying the principle of transparency … is essentially to … preclude any risk of favouritism or arbitrariness on the part of the licensing authority.”
This provides useful confirmation that the EU Treaties rules not only apply to national gambling legislation but also to the actions of licensing authorities.  With this ruling, the Court has also given its views on the allegation that the broad discretionary power of Member States would stand in the way of an EU framework for gambling. 

Thank you for your time. 

Michiel Willems © 2012 CP Publishing Ltd. London, UK. Pictures: EGBA / Luxuryeyesite / TheOffside.com / Europenet.eu