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Protocol | Policy

She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team.

As the country's first deputy director for science and society, Alondra Nelson will scrutinize tech's impact on society.

She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team.

Alondra Nelson will focus on the sociological impact of emerging technologies and scientific projects.

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Alondra Nelson knows what it's like to be let down by Facebook.

The renowned social scientist was just named as President Biden's first deputy director for science and society, a position that will focus on the sociological effects of emerging technologies and scientific projects.

But three years ago, she was picked by a group of foundations to help lead Social Science One, an ambitious research project that aimed to give academics access to troves of Facebook data in order to examine the platform's impact on democracy. The project came at a sensitive time, on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it was a big deal: If the group pulled it off, they could open up vital lines of communication between social science and Big Tech. Nelson was the president of the Social Science Research Council, a nonprofit that was tasked with giving out Social Science One grants to researchers.

But by 2019, the effort was floundering. Nelson had promised money to researchers to explore data that Facebook wasn't willing to give because of privacy concerns. The groups involved — including Social Science One, a pool of wealthy funders and the Council — were all at loggerheads over how to move forward.

"The privacy issues turned out to be way harder than anybody understood when we started, so we weren't able to get the data to the researchers," Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, told Protocol. "[Nelson] was pushing for clarity — like, 'We're on the line here.'" Nelson said the groups should shut down the project quickly if Facebook wasn't going to give up the data soon.

Ultimately, the Council chose to cut ties with the project. A version of the dataset was released early last year after two years of struggle.

Even though the Council opted out of the Social Science One project, danah boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, said Nelson's work prompted the Council to start focusing on technology as an area of study. "It was a win even when Facebook never unlocked the data," boyd, who was on the Council's board at the time, said.

It started a broad conversation within academia about the most effective ways to partner with large corporations. Before this project, the Council had never attempted to use corporate data, focusing mainly on public datasets like the Census, boyd said: "It creates openings for new possibilities down the line when there is more of this kind of data."

And now, Nelson is bringing that expertise to the White House.

Over the course of his campaign, President Biden promised to bring a civil rights lens to all of his administration's policies, including tech policy. Nelson, whose research has focused on the intersection of race and technology, is in many ways the embodiment of that promise.

Nelson did not respond to requests for comment and the Office of Science and Technology Policy declined to comment, but Nelson's inclusion was met with widespread support from the community of AI ethicists, tech critics and civil rights advocates who say it's past time for the government to address the civil rights and social justice issues that technological innovations are raising.

"When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design, test and research, we are making human choices — choices that bring our social world to bear in a new and powerful way," Nelson said during her acceptance speech this month. "That's why in my career, I've always sought to understand the perspective of people and communities who are not usually in the room when the inputs are made, but who live with the outputs."

Under former President Obama, the White House OSTP was filled with techno-optimists and scientists who hoped to infuse all levels of government with technological innovation and expertise. But Nelson will likely serve as a more critical voice in the room to discuss how emerging technologies interact with race, class and gender. As a researcher, she focused on how African Americans "have been the most damaged by science and technology," but have also "been the most innovative with it, despite these countervailing forces," as she put it in an interview last year. Her book "The Social Life of DNA" delves into the fraught relationship between genetic testing and Black communities, and the anthology she helped compile, titled "Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life," explores the ways in which people of color use technology day-to-day.

Last year, she helped launch Just Tech, a network of scholars focused on creating an equitable tech industry. And her latest research focused on how under Obama, the White House OSTP — her new employer — incorporated ethics into its work.

"It's certainly not the shallow 'open data will solve all policy programs' refrain that we've seen from some folks in some previous administrations," said Meredith Whittaker, faculty director of the AI Now Institute and a leader in the tech labor organizing movement.

Whittaker said Nelson's research on the Black Panther party's grassroots medical activism helped inspire her own work because of the way it illuminated the power of political organizing.

"I'm really optimistic to have somebody at the helm of OSTP who thinks that broadly and understands the capacity for organized communities and the people who are living the effects of these technologies," Whittaker said.

Nelson's new role is particularly pivotal as the new administration grapples with the tradeoffs between surveillance and privacy, particularly in the context of COVID-19, which has disproportionately harmed Black and minority communities. The OSTP, which has an amorphous role that is typically shaped by the personalities within it, will likely advise the president on issues including contact tracing and machine-enabled vaccine deployment, as well as topics like algorithmic bias and data privacy.

"She'll critically engage that idea of: Who can be harmed by this technology?" said Simone Browne, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who says her work on anti-Blackness and surveillance was influenced by Nelson's research.

"Her appointment certainly appears to be an indication that some of the topics of her research — which get into race and class and equity, and the shape of our society — will become more the focus of OSTP's work," said Jen Pahlka, who previously served as Obama's deputy chief technology officer.

While activists like Whittaker are excited about Nelson's appointment, that excitement is tempered by a deep skepticism as the Biden administration taps Silicon Valley insiders to shape policy within the administration. His attorney general is reportedly mulling tapping a former Facebook lawyer to run the DOJ's antitrust division.

Whittaker said she's concerned that Biden is bringing in critical leaders like Nelson alongside tech industry officials who have shaped the unequal industry she has scrutinized.

The OSTP is still setting up shop. There are many positions within the office that Biden has not yet filled, including chief technology officer, and the office is still in the process of assembling its portfolio. Ultimately, Nelson will only be one voice among many shaping the trajectory of science and technology policy. But her appointment is an early signal that tech policy will look fundamentally different under President Biden.

"If Alondra does at OSTP what she does everywhere else, she'll open so many doors for people who would have never had access to any of this before," boyd said. "And that's important if we're actually trying to [create] a more inclusive government."

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
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The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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