Sports Direct faces revolt over vote to keep Hellawell

Keith Hellawell, chairman of Sports Direct

Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawell is set to face a shareholder revolt later over his proposed reappointment.

Independent investors are being urged to vote against his re-election because of a “catalogue of governance and operational failures” under his watch.

However, chief executive Mike Ashley is expected to support Mr Hellawell, ensuring he will continue in the role.

The company has been under fire during the past 18 months over conditions for its workers and governance issues.

The advisory group, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) is recommending investors vote against Mr Hellawell’s reappointment.

“As chairman, Keith Hellawell has overseen a period of serious operational, governance, and risk oversight concerns which have materially affected the company’s outlook and damaged shareholder value,” the ISS said in a report.

At the company’s September 2016 annual general meeting, more than half of the independent shareholders voted against Mr Hellawell after media reports and a parliamentary committee lambasted the company over conditions for people working at the company’s main warehouse and over corporate governance.

Mr Hellawell, a former police chief constable and government drugs adviser, offered to resign but was persuaded to stay “in order to assist with making further improvements”.

The 74-year-old, who has been Sports Direct chairman since 2009, said he would step down at the 2017 AGM if he had failed to win over shareholders’ approval by then.

New rules to empower shareholders mean Mr Hellawell is obliged to face a second vote now before he is confirmed in the chairman’s role. That vote is taking place at Thursday’s specially convened meeting.

One of the company’s investors, Aberdeen Asset Management has already said it will continue to oppose Mr Hellawell in the role, despite moves by the company to address the criticism levelled at it last year.

“Though we welcome the positive progress the company has made over the last three months we remain deeply concerned about its governance. We are therefore again opposing the election of Mr Hellawell,” Paul Lee, head of corporate governance at Aberdeen Asset Management, said.

However, another leading investor advisory service, Glass Lewis, is recommending that investors vote for Mr Hellawell’s reappointment because of “the need for continuity in the leadership of the board, particularly in this period of flux” and pointed to some positive steps that had been taken at the firm.

And Mr Ashley holds 55% of the company’s shares and is also expected to vote in favour of Mr Hellawell’s reappointment.

Over the past year Sports Direct has faced a barrage of criticism over its financial performance, corporate governance and conditions for workers at its warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.

A report by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills committee said employees of the company were “”.

Since then the company has promised an independent inquiry and to undertake significant reforms, including offering compensation to workers who had been underpaid.

Several senior employees have left the company. Dave Forsey as chief executive and was replaced by Mr Ashley. The veteran banker David Brayshaw was recruited as an independent director.

However, the company has provoked further criticism by ordering a £40m corporate jet and over business relationships involving members of Mr Ashley’s family.

Alibaba cracks down on counterfeiters on their platform

Alibaba logo

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has sued two vendors for selling counterfeit goods, weeks after being blacklisted by a US industry watchdog.

It’s the first time the firm has taken legal action against counterfeiters.

Alibaba sued the vendors for allegedly selling fake Swarovski watches on its Taobao platform.

The move comes just two weeks after the company was put back onto the US’s “notorious markets” list over failing to curb the sale of counterfeit goods.

Alibaba had been taken off the list four years ago, but US authorities say the firm’s online platform Taobao is being used to sell “high levels” of fake goods.

The lawsuit against two unnamed vendors claims 1.4 million yuan ($201,671, £163,419) in damages, the company said.

The counterfeiters were found out during a “test-buy purchase programme” when the watches they sold were confirmed by Swarovski to be fakes.

In a subsequent police raid, more than 125 counterfeit watches worth nearly 2 million yuan were confiscated.

Alibaba said it would continue to crack down on counterfeiters and that it already had a list of other suspected vendors who would face similar action.

“We want to mete out to counterfeiters the punishment they deserve in order to protect brand owners,” Alibaba said in a statement.

The Chinese online retailer and its market place Taobao have long been accused of being a platform for counterfeit goods.

In May last year, Alibaba was suspended from the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC) watchdog over piracy concerns.

Alibaba, China’s biggest online retailer floated on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014 and broke records by raising $25bn.

Panasonic teams with Google, Qualcomm on infotainment

LAS VEGAS — Panasonic is collaborating with Google’s Android Auto and Qualcomm Inc. on an infotainment system concept. The design was revealed at CES, the industry trade show formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, on Wednesday.

The move comes after rival Samsung Electronics acquired Harman International in November, increasing its commitment to the infotainment space.

Infotainment has become an increasingly valuable business with vehicles become more connected and autonomous. Suppliers and tech companies have been jockeying for the role of occupying drivers once they no longer have to keep their eyes on the road — and this slice of the automotive industry expected to be worth $5 billion in the next few years, according to Intel.

Panasonic’s concept anticipates demand for a more flexible system. Screen sizes can be customized across vehicle models and the Android Auto software can be updated frequently over the air.

The concept is based on the latest version of Android Auto and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip.

“We anticipate that this infotainment concept will be incredibly powerful, it will be adaptable, and it will shorten the lead times as well as production times and the cost upfront for your automobile,” said Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America.

The partnership with Google also gives Android Auto further control of the vehicle. The software can control air conditioning, windows, door locks and the radio, among other functions.

“We’re creating a more seamless, integrated experience,” said Patrick Grady, director of engineering for Android Auto, in an interview with Automotive News. “It’s not just a portal to your smartphone.”

The Android Auto software is open source, allowing automakers to add their own details and functionality. Grady said Google’s partnership with Panasonic is not exclusive.

Panasonic’s infotainment concept is also embedded in the Chrysler Portal, an electric minivan concept introduced at CES by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Dish combines over-the-air and internet video

Dish started out as a satellite TV provider, but they have bigger plans now. Their new AirTV combines over-the-air (OTA) products and services with internet streaming video for an affordable mix of old-fashioned television and streaming.

AirTV Player

Dish wants you to watch both your OTA and internet streaming TV on its new AirTV Player.

It’s made up of two products and one service. The main product is the AirTV Player. This a 4K Android TV-based streaming device and lists for $99.99. To enable it to work with OTA TV stations, you’ll need an AirTV adapter, $39.99, and an OTA antenna. These are both sold separately. You can get the AirTV Player and AirTV adapter together for $129.99.

The AirTV Player supports both 802.11ac and earlier Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet. Its remote relies on Bluetooth. To connect with your TV it uses HDMI.

You can install the gear yourself, or you can use AirTV Pro Install, a service that offers expertise, installation, and setup of OTA antennas. AirTV Pro Install service offers Winegard FlatWave Amped indoor antennas and Televes DigiNova BOSS outdoor antennas. Standard one-room antenna installation, including the antenna, is available starting at $99.99 for an indoor antenna or $149.99 for an outdoor antenna. Installation is available in 48 markets at launch, while broadcast station availability is dependent on geographic location, topography, and antenna specifications. You can also use the AirTV Player with your existing antenna.

AirTV’s key selling point is it enables you to combine streaming and OTA TV with one interface and one remote. “AirTV Player simplifies what has been a fragmented viewing experience and integrates a customer’s entertainment options in one easy-to-navigate app,” said Mitch Weinraub, AirTV’s director of product development, in a statement. “AirTV’s new streaming device and antenna installation service again make getting your entertainment as easy as turning on the TV.”

This new streaming gadget will be competing with a variety of other streaming devices. The closest competitor, however, doesn’t come from Apple, Amazon, or Roku, but from TiVo. The grandfather of DVRs has several models, the Roamio and Bolt, that combine OTA and internet video streaming.

The big difference between TiVo and AirTV offerings is that the TiVo models come with DVR. However, AirTV will soon be offering DVR services for its primary streaming platform, Sling TV.

There are other differences. The AirTV interface combines streaming channels with OTA more seamlessly than TiVo does. On the other hand, AirTV currently only offers Netflix, YouTube, Sling TV, and channels available via the Google Play Store

Last, but never least, AirTV at $129.99 is far cheaper than the bottom-line TiVo Bolt TB with its $199.99 price-tag and $14.99 a month TiVo DVR fee. The AirTV has no monthly fee.

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Intel announces 5G modem at CES

Chip giant Intel has announced its 5G modem at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017 in Las Vegas, calling it a “milestone for the industry” as it will allow companies to develop and launch 5G solutions earlier than previously anticipated.

According to Intel, the modem is the first to enable 5G trials anywhere in the world because its single chip supports both millimetre-wave (mmWave) and sub-6GHz spectrum bands, incorporating Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO), beam-forming technology, and advanced channel coding.

MIMO sends multiple channels of data at the same time, allowing users to have peak performances simultaneously, while beam-forming technology uses antenna arrays to steer a beam to where a user is.

Intel’s 5G modem should support speeds of over 5Gbps and ultra low latency, with Intel expecting it to be used initially in the home broadband, mobile, and automotive industries.

The modem also integrates with Intel’s 28GHz 5G Radio Frequency Integrated Circuit (RFIC), as well as its 4G XMM 7360 LTE modem for 4G/5G interworking.

Intel also used its CES announcement to launch its 5G-ready GO platform, which is intended to help autonomous vehicles connect using cloud computing, with two GO development kits for its Atom and Xeon processors also announced.

As part of the GO platform launch, Intel has partnered with BMW and Mobileye, and said it will have 40 autonomous cars on the roads by mid year. Intel also recently acquired 15 percent of digital mapping company HERE as part of its push into autonomous vehicles.

Intel laid out its 5G roadmap during Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016, saying it would be working with Nokia, Ericsson, LG, Verizon, and others on 5G network development, testing, and deployment.

“5G represents a significant shift for these networks, and we think it’s essential to get ready ahead of the curve,” Aicha Evans, corporate vice president and general manager of the Intel communication and services group, said at the time.

“We need to make sure we partner with everybody in the ecosystem, all of the trendsetters and the leaders, so there’s an ecosystem we can roam and have a single worldwide view.”

Intel also used MWC to announce its Atom x3-M7272 wireless communication platform for “automotive applications capable of powering advance security features”, as well as the Intel XMM 7120M LTE modem, which is aimed at Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) use cases.

In December, Intel said it would be partnering with US telecommunications provider AT&T and Ericsson on a public 5G trial in Austin, Texas, in an effort to attain speeds of 14Gbps for 4K video using mmWave technology across the 15GHz and 28GHz spectrum bands.

“This trial is a significant step forward. We’re leaving the lab and heading into the field with a real-world business customer,” Rick Hubbard, senior VP of networking product management at AT&T, said in December.

“We expect mmWave technology to be an important part of 5G. The trial will help accelerate our 5G work by shedding new light on how the technology acts in a business environment.”

AT&T on Tuesday further announced that it will use the first half of this year to test its 5G network with DirecTV Now customers in Austin.

The launch of Intel’s 5G modem follows Qualcomm revealing the world’s first commercial 5G modem chipset solution in October last year.

Announced at the 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong, the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem, designed to enable field trials and early deployments of 5G networks globally with download speeds of around 5Gbps, supports operation in the mmWave spectrum in the 28GHz band, with 800MHz bandwidth support, and employs MIMO with adaptive beam-forming and beam-tracking technology.

The solution includes the modem, SDR051 mmWave transceivers, and PMX50 power management chip.

The modem can be used for 4G and 5G mobile broadband, along with fixed-wireless broadband devices, when paired with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and its gigabit-speed 4G modem.

“The Snapdragon X50 5G modem heralds the arrival of 5G as operators and OEMs reach the cellular network and device testing phase,” Cristiano Amon, executive vice president of Qualcomm Technologies, said at the time.

“Utilising our long history of LTE and Wi-Fi leadership, we are thrilled to deliver a product that will help play a critical role in bringing 5G devices and networks to reality. This shows that we’re not just talking about 5G, we’re truly committed to it.”

Sampling for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem is slated to take place in the second half of 2017, with the first commercial products integrated with the modem expected in the first half of 2018.

Fuel prices hit 18-month high, after Opec production cuts

man fills car with petrol

The price of petrol and diesel in the UK has risen to its highest since July 2015, following a three-pence-a-litre increase in December alone.

The average cost of unleaded petrol hit 117.23p at the end of the month, with diesel reaching 119.63p, the RAC said.

The wholesale price of both fuels has risen significantly, following the production cuts announced by Opec.

Brent crude jumped by 10% on 30 November, the day the cartel announced a cut of 1.2 million barrels a day.

As a result, the oil price is now double what it was a year ago, rising from a low of $27.88 in January 2016 to more than $55 this month.

The fall in the value of sterling since the Brexit vote has also increased UK fuel prices, as oil is priced in dollars.

Click to see content: brentcrude040117

Over the next two weeks, the RAC expects the price of unleaded to rise to 118p, with diesel going up to 121p a litre.

Thereafter, the price will be mostly determined by the cost of oil and whether Russia in particular will adhere to the production cuts it agreed with Opec.

It promised to cut 600,000 barrels a day from January, but in the past it has been reluctant to co-operate with such deals.

“So far the price rises we’ve seen are purely down to the announcement at the end of November that Opec and non-Opec countries would be cutting oil production this month,” said Simon Williams, a fuel spokesperson for the RAC.

“Everything now depends on the strength of the deal and each country sticking to the agreed production levels. Russia will be of particular interest as it is currently producing at near record levels.”

Over the next few months, the price of fuel will also be determined by political events, such as policies introduced by President Donald Trump, and the success of Brexit negotiations, which are due to begin in March.

Both could affect the value of sterling against the dollar.

Some experts believe the price of oil could also rise to $60 a barrel or more later this year.

Samsung to invest $150m into emerging tech startups globally

Samsung will be investing $150 million into emerging tech startups, the company announced on Wednesday.

The Samsung NEXT Fund will be targeting pre-seed to Series B investments, with a focus on virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and other “new frontier technologies”. In addition to capital, the fund will provide domain expertise and access to other unspecified resources.

Samsung NEXT has not disclosed the amount startups receive at various stages of their lifecycle, however it has invested in 10 companies thus far: Converge Industries, Dashbot, Entry Point VR, Filament, Intezer, LiquidSky, Otto Radio, 2Sens, SafeDK, and Virtru.

David Eun, founder and president of Samsung NEXT, the division leading the fund, said the company envisions software and services becoming “a core part of Samsung Electronics’ DNA” and that startups are key to achieving this.

Brendon Kim, VP and managing director of Samsung NEXT, added that the fund increases the company’s access to ideas, products, and talent that could add value to Samsung’s ecosystem.

In September, Samsung NEXT, which was formerly known as the Samsung Global Innovation Center, launched its fifth office in Tel Aviv, after establishing offices in Mountain View, New York, San Francisco, and Korea. The company will be expanding into additional locations in 2017.

Samsung has also been strengthening its foothold in the automotive industry, announcing its plans to acquire US auto parts maker Harman International Industries for $8 billion in cash in November 2016, marking the biggest deal in the company’s history. Harman and Samsung said the former’s experience and clout in the automotive industry combined with latter’s experience in mobility, semiconductors, user experience, displays, and global distribution channels will create significant growth opportunities.

Park Jong-hwan, head of Samsung’s automotive business, stressed that the company’s purchase of Harman was part of its strategy to become a tier-1 supplier in the smart car age to come, rather than become an automobile maker. The South Korean tech giant built automobiles during the ’90s but sold the business due to the Asian Financial Crisis.

Toyota’s cute Concept-i wants to be your friend

LAS VEGAS — Toyota Motor Corp. wants you and your car to be friends.

On Wednesday at CES, the industry trade show formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, the automaker unveiled its “Concept-i” vehicle, a futuristic-looking car with an artificially intelligent assistant built in.

“We need to look beyond the simple driver-vehicle interface and focus on the driver-vehicle relationship,” said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota.

Embedded in Concept-i is “Yui,” Toyota’s artificial intelligence system. Yui is intended to monitor driver behavior and mood to determine the vehicle’s actions. It also interacts with the driver — Yui was demonstrated on screen as a cartoon circle — to facilitate the driver-vehicle relationship.

Carter did not say if the vehicle was intended for production, but said Toyota will be testing some of the concept’s technologies on Japan roads in the next few years.

Why US government sanctioned hacking needs to be regulated

Underground markets on the Dark Web, like the now defunct Silk Road, offer a great deal of anonymity to those managing the illegal commerce sites. The reason: Evidence residing on cloud-based marketplace platforms is difficult at best to locate, and retrieving it might entail hacking servers located in foreign countries.

To shutter illegitimate cloud-based marketplaces that are affecting American citizens, US law-enforcement agencies often use Network Investigative Techniques (NIT), otherwise known as sanctioned hacking.

SEE: FBI gains expanded hacking powers after lawmakers’ attempts to block fail (ZDNet)

Search warrants

Put simply, hacking becomes sanctioned when law-enforcement agencies obtain search warrants. “Currently there are two types of warrants used for criminal searches,” writes Special Agent John M. Cauthen in an October 2014 FBI blog post. “The first is the traditional search warrant under FED. R. EVID. P. 41, which covers a search of a particular location. The second is the search warrant under 18. U. S. C. §2703 where the court may issue a warrant for records held by cloud providers.”

Cauthen offers as an example an investigation in which search warrants for data on a computer in the US unearthed a direct link to a server in a foreign country. FBI agents downloaded incriminating data from that server, and the courts ruled the data could be introduced in court.

However, Cauthen cautions, “Investigators should be aware that executing an international search without permission of the host country could cause other problems.”

Cauthen may be referring to United States v. Gorshkov (PDF), where authorities in a foreign country charged a US investigator with hacking, and requested the investigator be extradited for trial. US authorities have not complied. It does not take much to see where this sort of activity could escalate into an international incident.

SEE: Digital forensics: The smart person’s guide (TechRepublic)

The practical reality

“The practical reality of the underlying technologies makes it inevitable that foreign-located computers will be subject to remote searches and seizures,” writes Ahmed Ghappour, visiting assistant professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, in his March 2016 research paper Searching Places Unknown: Law Enforcement Jurisdiction on the Dark Web. “The result may well be the greatest extraterritorial expansion of enforcement jurisdiction in U.S. law-enforcement history.”

Ghappour feels the expanded reach of US law-enforcement agencies into foreign countries needs to be regulated so government-sanctioned hacking does not have a negative impact on US foreign relations and/or national security. “Rather than wait for political fallout as a precondition for government intervention, a more forward-looking approach would re-allocate decision-making to institutions better suited to identify and balance foreign relations risks against the law enforcement benefits of using cross-border NITs,” suggests Ghappour.

SEE: Special report: Cyberwar and the future of cybersecurity (free ebook) (TechRepublic)

How to proceed

To get started, Ghappour believes the following regulatory questions need to be addressed by the powers that be:

  • What policy preferences should be set (using direct and indirect government intervention) to mitigate the immediate risks caused by the failure of the existing rules?
  • Which institutions should set these preferences, and calibrate them within a complex and unpredictable global cybersecurity landscape?
  • How should the policy preferences be implemented and enforced, considering the comparative institutional failures of the existing system?

In Ghappour’s opinion, the Executive Branch is best suited to assume responsibility and provide policy for sanctioned hacking, ensuring that it is predictable, objectively applied, democratically legitimate, and in the public’s best interest. To make his case, Ghappour writes, “Executive agencies such as the Department of Justice arguably have superior systematic access to information and expertise on both foreign relations and technology—whether through its own subject matter experts or access to other executive agencies that specialize in foreign policy, intelligence gathering, and technology capabilities.”

SEE: Cybersecurity in President Trump’s America: The first 100 days (TechRepublic)

Not mincing words, Ghappour mentions Congress and the Justice System are slow and non-uniform in their decision making. “While the courts can examine changing issues on a case-by-case basis, their system of precedent and jurisdictional limitation slows the generation of decision rules that have a uniform national application,” he explains. “For its part, Congress hasn’t passed a comprehensive electronic surveillance law in over 30 years, and is ‘notoriously sluggish’ when it comes to enacting surveillance statutes.”

Next, Ghappour suggests it is paramount to review and answer the following questions every time a foreign intervention is being planned:

  • What hacking techniques should be authorized?
  • Who should be targeted?
  • What crimes should trigger use of hacking techniques?

In conclusion, Ghappour does not consider his voice to be the only one raising concerns about overreach by US law-enforcement agencies in their quest to squelch digital crime, mentioning that the Rule 41 Subcommittee has received more than 50 written comments since its inception in 2014, adding, “The extraterritorial aspect of law enforcement hacking operations has drawn sharp public criticism by a wide array of commentators, academics, civil liberties organizations, and technology corporations.”

All countries, including the US, claim sovereignty over physical borders, and it works. The trick, it seems, will be applying autonomy to digital borders.

LUXURY: Mercedes recaptures crown after 2-year hiatus

Mercedes took the 2016 U.S. luxury title even though its sales for the year declined, but the results were still strong enough to beat Lexus and last year’s winner, BMW.

The Daimler AG unit said its U.S. sales fell 0.8 percent to 340,237 in 2016, with December sales dropping 6.4 percent to 32,011 vehicles. Mercedes finished the year with a 16.8 percent share of the U.S. luxury market. It last won the luxury title in 2013.

Toyota’s Lexus brand said 2016 U.S. sales slipped 3.9 percent to 331,228 vehicles. Lexus, behind year-end discounts, topped the segment in December even with sales dropping 0.5 percent to 41,182 vehicles. The brand finished the year with a 16.4 percent share of luxury sales.

BMW’s namesake brand finished a distant third in 2016 with sales slipping 9.5 percent to 313,174 vehicles. Sales fell 5.2 percent in December to 32,835. It finished the year with a 15.5 percent market share. BMW won the U.S. luxury sales crown in 2014 and 2015.

Audi’s 2016 U.S. sales improved 4 percent to 210,213 vehicles — good for fourth place.

Cadillac, Acura, Infiniti and Lincoln rounded out the next four spots in luxury sales.

Hyundai’s new Genesis luxury brand, which was launched in the U.S. in August, finished the year with sales of 6,948 vehicles — a 0.3 percent share of the market.

Jaguar had the biggest annual gain — 116 percent — of all luxury brands last year, with U.S. volume rising to 31,243 behind the launch of the brand’s first crossover, the F-Pace.

Note: Mercedes results do not include Sprinter or Metris sales. BMW results do not include the Mini brand.