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Trade, tech stocks, currencies and RBA in focus

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Shares of U.S. tech giants, including Facebook, Netflix and Google parent Alphabet, all declined overnight in the first trading session of the month, having first sold off in March.

E-commerce giant Amazon, one of the best performers over the past year, declined after U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the company in a series of tweets.

Investors also digested China’s announcement that it is imposing tariffs on 128 kinds of U.S. products, beginning Monday, in response to U.S. duties on steel and aluminum imports unveiled last month. Beijing said in March that those products had an import value of $3 billion in 2017.

Analysts saw the move as largely measured, although there was concern that retaliation from U.S. trading partners would be negative for global economic growth.

In corporate news, Australian oil and gas company Santos announced Tuesday that it had received a $10.4 billion takeover proposal from Harbour Energy, Reuters said.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s SK Innovation was down 2.34 percent in early trade. Reuters reported that the company said on Monday it intended to sell shares in its SK Lubricants unit as part of a planned initial public offering.

The dollar index, which tracks the U.S. currency against six peers, stood at 90.065 by 8:04 a.m. HK/SIN.

Against the yen, the dollar extended losses, slipping below the 106 level to trade at 105.73. Monday marked the third consecutive session the greenback slid against the safe-haven Japanese currency.

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SpaceX lands Starship rocket SN15 after test flight

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[This livestream has ended. A replay is available above.]

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched and then landed the latest prototype of its Starship rocket on Wednesday, in the fifth high-altitude test flight of the system.

Starship prototype rocket Serial Number 15, or SN15, launched and flew as high as 10 kilometers, or about 33,000 feet in altitude. The rocket is built of stainless steel, representing the early versions of the rocket that Musk unveiled in 2019.

“Starship landing nominal!” Musk tweeted after the landing. Nominal is a space industry term used to refer to when things go according to plan.

SN15 marked the first Starship prototype that SpaceX did not destroy after a high-altitude test flight. While a small fire broke out at the base of the rocket after the landing, the fire appeared contained a few minutes later.

The company is developing Starship to launch cargo and people on missions to the moon and Mars.

Earlier this month, NASA awarded SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract to build a lunar variation of Starship to carry astronauts to the moon’s surface for the agency’s Artemis missions. However, while Musk’s company continues to move forward with Starship development, NASA suspended SpaceX work on the HLS program after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Leidos‘ subsidiary Dynetics each filed protests of the NASA contract award.

The SN15 flight was similar to the ones SpaceX has conducted in the past six months, with the test flights of prototypes SN8, SN9, SN10 and SN11. While each of the prior rockets launched successfully and completed multiple development objectives, all four prototypes were explosively destroyed – SN8 and SN9 on impact during landing attempts, SN10 a few minutes after landing, and SN11 moments before its landing attempt.

The Starship prototypes stand at about 150 feet tall, or about the size of a 15-story building, and each one is powered by three Raptor rocket engines.

SpaceX noted in a statement on its website that SN15 features “vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software” compared to the prior Starship prototypes.

“Specifically, a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration,” SpaceX said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has an inspector at SpaceX’s facilities to observe the test flights, conducted a “mishap” investigation of the SN11 flight.

Last week the FAA announced the authorization of the next three Starship launches – SN15, SN16, and SN16 – saying it will “verify that SpaceX implemented corrective actions arising from the SN11 mishap investigation.”

The FAA authorized multiple launches at once “because SpaceX is making few changes to the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public.”

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Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump decision was Marbury v Madison moment

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Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Yasin Ozturk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

In 1803, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was faced with an impossible decision. 

He could disagree with President Thomas Jefferson on the matter of Marbury v. Madison, calling his administration’s actions illegal and risk that Jefferson would immediately dismiss or ignore the court’s decision. Or he could bow to the executive branch, agree with its actions, and be allowed a crumb of power within the young U.S. democracy. 

In the end, Marshall and the rest of the court made an astounding decision. In its ruling, the court criticized the administration’s actions, but ultimately upheld them by ruling that the law in question was unconstitutional. 

The decision is held as the most important in U.S. constitutional law because although Jefferson ultimately got the ruling he wanted, in the process Marshall established the principle of judicial review. The ruling set a precedent for the legitimacy and power of the Supreme Court in the U.S., firmly establishing its powers of accountability over the executive and legislative branches. 

That process was repeated on Wednesday in the modern arena of a technology empire. 

Facing its first major case since its creation in October 2020, Facebook‘s Oversight Board upheld the company’s decision to restrict former President Donald Trump’s access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts. 

But while it agreed with the actions taken by Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the Oversight Board also criticized the way the company arrived at its decision and demanded that Facebook clarify and codify its content policies. 

The decision leaves Zuckerberg in a similar spot that Marshall put Jefferson. He got the result he wanted, but at the cost of his absolute power.

The first real test for the Oversight Board

To understand the significance of Wednesday’s decision, it’s important to remember how Facebook’s Oversight Board came to be.

The independent body was announced by Zuckerberg in November 2018, after the company had faced a grueling avalanche of critical news reports and scandals for months.

“I’ve increasingly come to believe that Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own,” Zuckerberg said in a note published on Nov. 15, 2018. That was one day after the New York Times had published a scathing report detailing how COO Sheryl Sandberg and other Facebook execs tried to downplay and spin bad news.

Zuckerberg announced the independent body, and then nothing happened for more than a year.

It wasn’t until January 2020 that the company finally unveiled the bylaws for its Oversight Board. Despite Zuckerberg contending that the board’s decisions would be binding, the bylaws contained a number loopholes and binds that left the company firmly in charge. Notably, the board would only be funded for six years, and more importantly, the board’s decisions would apply narrowly, with Facebook retaining final say on whether or not to broadly apply the decisions of the board.

These limitations weren’t surprising, given how much power Zuckerberg has singlehandedly wielded over his domain since the creation of Facebook in 2004.

Zuckerberg has close personal ties with most of the members of his board of directors, and directors who attempt to exercise oversight tend to leave the board not soon after, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Most significantly, Zuckerberg holds controlling power from his shares of Facebook stock, making the votes held by the company’s investors irrelevant. This is why time and again, proposals pitched at the company’s annual shareholders meeting are swiftly rejected, despite in some cases receiving support from a majority of shareholders not named Zuckerberg.

This is why a group of Facebook critics decided to launch their own “Real Facebook Oversight Board” in September 2020. The group holds no power or influence, but its mere existence symbolized how little trust or hope anyone outside the walls of Facebook had for the actual Oversight Board.

It wasn’t until October 2020 that the Oversight Board finally launched, and by then, it was too late for the board to have any sort of say on the company’s handling of the 2020 U.S. election.

Since then, the board has handled a few cases. But the independent body didn’t really get its first test until Jan. 21, when Facebook announced that it would refer its decision to suspend Trump indefinitely.

Halving the difference

As with the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Facebook Oversight Board found itself in an impossible position with its first major test.

Had the board overturned Facebook’s decision to restrict Trump, it would’ve absolved the company from its responsibilities and drawn harsh criticism from anybody on the left of the U.S. political spectrum as well as Trump’s many critics around the world. The ruling would’ve undermined Facebook’s own decision in January and would’ve pressed Zuckerberg to prove (or disprove) his commitment to the board’s rulings.

On the other hand, simply agreeing with Facebook would have drawn criticism from Trump’s adherents and positioned the board as little more than Zuckerberg’s puppet.

Instead, the Oversight Board halved the difference, upholding the suspension while taking the company to task by broadly criticizing its policies and demanding that Facebook commit to a six-month re-evaluation. That process will require the company to reassess its penalty on Trump and decide an appropriate duration for that penalty that is consistent with Facebook’s rules and do so in a way that is “clear, necessary and proportionate.”

In this ruling, the Oversight Board did not mince words or back away from its impossible task.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board said in its note announcing its decision. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”

Like Marshall and the early Supreme Court, the board used this case as an opportunity to establish that it will define its purpose, not Facebook.

“It is Facebook’s role to create necessary and proportionate penalties that respond to severe violations of its content policies,” the board wrote. “The Board’s role is to ensure that Facebook’s rules and processes are consistent with its content policies, its values and its human rights commitments.”

The board’s ruling extended beyond Trump’s specific suspension. In the ruling, the board criticized the company in other areas, echoing complaints outsiders have had for years, and laid out several specific recommendations for how the company can start to get a handle on the matters.

These recommendations address how the company distinguishes between users who are government and political leaders from users who have widespread followings, and how the company handles situations when an influential user makes posts that pose a high probability of imminent harm. The recommendations also call on Facebook to address confusion about how decisions are made regarding these highly influential users, and the recommendations call on Facebook to report how many accounts it restricts based on region and country in the company’s regular transparency reports.

Proving its power

In arriving at its decision, the board has done what no other body within the walls of Facebook’s empire has dared to do: Publicly and officially criticize the company for its very real failures and the significant impact those failures have had on human rights and democracy across the globe.

More importantly, the board established its legitimacy and independence and cornered Zuckerberg into validating its power. 

The rest is now up to Zuckerberg.

Should he commit to and comply with the board’s decisions and recommendations, he can legitimize the power of the board while giving up some of his own control.

If he ignores what the board had to say and undermines it, he will reveal the independent body as nothing more than a sham to conceal that there are no checks and balances in the Facebook empire.   

Facebook’s initial response suggests it hasn’t decided which way to go.

Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg said the company is pleased with the board’s ruling to recognize that the company’s actions in January were justified. Clegg thanked the board, and he said Facebook will consider the six-month review and its numerous recommendations. Clegg, however, did not commit the company to anything beyond the decision to keep Trump off of Facebook.

It’s an initial and short reaction, but the lack of commitment to the board’s recommendation is notable.

It’s worth calling back to Zuckerberg’s words when he first introduced the idea of this independent body.

“I believe independence is important for a few reasons,” Zuckerberg wrote in November 2018. “First, it will prevent the concentration of too much decision-making within our teams. Second, it will create accountability and oversight. Third, it will provide assurance that these decisions are made in the best interests of our community and not for commercial reasons.”

If Facebook wants the world to believe it’s serious about following consistent policies, it must make a commitment to the six-month review process and follow through with the board’s demands. Otherwise, this Oversight Board is exactly what critics always thought it would be: A joke.

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Amazon CEO Bezos sells nearly $2 billion worth of Amazon stock

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Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos this week sold nearly $2 billion worth of shares in his company, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission compiled by OpenInsider.

Bezos sold roughly $684 million worth of Amazon shares on Tuesday, the filings show, after unloading about $1.27 billion worth of stock on Monday. That means he’s sold about $1.95 billion worth of Amazon shares over the past two days.

The transactions were made as part of a prearranged 10b5-1 trading plan, according to the filings. Representatives from Amazon weren’t immediately available to comment on the latest sale.

The sales come one week after Amazon reported first-quarter earnings results, trouncing Wall Street’s expectations as its business continues to be buoyed by the pandemic-fueled surge in e-commerce activity.

Bezos has accelerated his stock sales in recent years, previously unloading nearly $4.1 billion worth of shares last February. Bezos sold more than $3 billion worth of Amazon shares last November.

The Amazon founder previously said he’d sell about $1 billion in Amazon stock each year to fund his space exploration company, Blue Origin, which continues to grow and on Wednesday announced it will launch its first astronaut crew to space this summer. Bezos also earmarked additional capital for the Day One Fund, the organization he launched in September 2018 to provide education in low-income communities and combat homelessness. Last November, the fund awarded $98.5 million in grants to 32 groups.

These initiatives are expected to become a greater focus for Bezos once he steps down in the third quarter. Bezos will turn the helm over to AWS CEO Andy Jassy and assume the role of executive chairman on Amazon’s board.

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