Our favorite Protocol long-reads from 2021

Sit back, relax and soak up some of our best reporting from the last 12 months.

Book with "best long reads" of Protocol on cover

We've gathered the best of the best.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol; Getty Images

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Looking for a sit-down between the feasting? Got a spare 30 minutes because your one-on-ones are cancelled this week? Just trying to catch up on the year that was? We’ve got you.

As we head into the New Year, we thought it was a good time to look back at some of our favorite Protocol stories from the last 12 months. Some broke big news, some illuminated people and stories we needed to know more about and all are great and important tales. We hope you enjoy these highlights from 2021.

Inside Big Tech’s angry, geeky, often petty war for your privacy — Issie Lapowsky

  • The W3C tries to govern the internet by consensus, bringing everyone along for the ride. When it comes to privacy, that hasn't worked so well. This was a deep look at what privacy means, why it's so hard to agree on and whose job it really is to keep users safe. It's all messy.

How IBM lost the cloud — Tom Krazit

  • You could argue that IBM Cloud never really had a chance. Even some of the people who worked on it argue exactly that. The story of IBM over the last decade is a classic one: a company caught between its old success and the fast-moving future, stuck choosing the wrong side of history.

Brownsville, we have a problem — Anna Kramer

  • This is the story of what happens when Elon Musk comes to town. And decides to use the beach and wildlife refuge nearby as a launching pad to get humans to Mars. It's not all good news, and it's not all bad news. But it's changing everything, faster than anyone realized, and there's almost nothing anyone can do to stop it.

I helped build ByteDance's vast censorship machine — Shen Lu

  • A former employee lays out the what, how and why of one of China's huge censorship and surveillance operations. It takes an unbelievable amount of computation and human resources to keep this going. And it’s not easy to live with the experience of being responsible for it.

The GE Mafia: How an old-school company birthed a generation of tech leaders — Joe Williams

  • The PayPal Mafia gets all the credit, but it turns out an old-school company has an awful lot to teach people about how to build the future. GE may not be the giant it once was, but its influence is still everywhere.

Why is tech illustration stuck on repeat? Ask the overworked, underpaid illustrators. — Hirsh Chitkara

  • You've definitely seen the illustrations. The whimsical, simple silhouette drawings even have their own name: "Corporate Memphis." It is … everywhere. (And now that you know it, you'll see it even more.) Because like everything else in tech, art has become commoditized and turned into the product of drop-down menus. But maybe there's a comeback in sight.

An oral history of #hugops — Tom Krazit

  • It's hard when your job is largely invisible until something goes wrong. That's life as an operations engineer, though — and Tom wrote the fun, fascinating story of how people across the industry band together to lift each other up even when the internet is down.

Here’s what happens when men in tech share their salaries — Michelle Ma

  • Slowly but surely, it's getting easier to talk about money at work. And it turns out, when you do — when men do, especially — it has a tendency to spark change. The wage gap is real, but many people don't know what it looks like or how it affects them. That's starting to change.

How Congress' parade of tech hearings totally lost the plot — Ben Brody and Kate Cox

  • By this point, tech hearings in Congress have become pretty standard. So too has the fact they often have very little to do with anything actually relating to policy. Such is the reality of the government's relationship with the tech industry these days, which Ben and Kate lay out in painful detail here.

How EA got into mobile — and figured out the future of gaming — Nick Statt

  • Games have always been defined by where they're played. Consoles, PCs, mobile, Switch. But EA is helping usher in a new future, in which devices don't matter and services are everything. And it’s a future where everything is free to play and yet far more lucrative for businesses in the long run.

For Big Tech whistleblowers, there’s no such thing as 'moving on' — Issie Lapowsky

  • So much of tech's reckoning is a result of employees speaking out publicly about what's going on. Those people are all over the news for a while … and then what? Issie's story about what happens next, and why life never goes back to normal, is an important one.

Marc Benioff created one of Silicon Valley’s most unique cultures. Will it outlast him? — Joe Williams

  • The Salesforce "ohana" culture is famous. And it's just as real, just as pervasive and just as all-encompassing as you've heard. But can that culture survive a shift to remote work, a Slack-led reinvention of how work gets done and (eventually) the end of Marc Benioff's run in charge?

How Twitter hired tech's biggest critics to build ethical AI — Anna Kramer

  • Ethical AI is an important but difficult team to build in your company. (Just ask Google.) But Twitter's META team, so far, seems to be proof that it's possible. And it came together simply because Twitter decided it mattered and gave the team room to work. Anna’s story takes a close look at how the company made it happen.

The weaponization of employee resource groups — Megan Rose Dickey

  • ERGs have been talked about a lot over the last year or so, and have been identified as a way to help companies become more diverse and inclusive from within. But as Megan found, too many ERG members are finding it hard to effect real change in the workplace.

20 years of orange cones: The history of VLC — Janko Roettgers

  • VLC is a true Swiss Army knife of an app, the thing you turn to when nothing else knows what to do with that weird video file on your hard drive. Now, two decades old and still getting downloaded a million times a day (no, really), it's working on a redesign, a web app … and a space flight?

How Dapper Labs scored NBA crypto millions — Tomio Geron

  • If you hadn’t really heard of NFTs at the start of the year, you definitely have by now. And while there’s no shortage of people and companies trying to make money off of the craze, Dapper Labs was somewhat of a vanguard, building CryptoKitties several years ago and more recently (and now more famously), NBA Top Shot. Tomio took a close look at the company and the system it has its future pinned on.

Climate

Supreme Court takes a sledgehammer to greenhouse gas regulations

The court ruled 6-3 that the EPA cannot use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. That leaves a patchwork of policies from states, utilities and, increasingly, tech companies to pick up the slack.

The Supreme Court struck a major blow to the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Striking down the right to abortion may be the Supreme Court's highest-profile decision this term. But on Wednesday, the court handed down an equally massive verdict on the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of West Virginia v. EPA, the court decided that the agency has no ability to regulate greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Weakening the federal government's powers leaves a patchwork of states, utilities and, increasingly, tech companies to pick up the slack in reducing carbon pollution.

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Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

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Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Fintech

Can crypto regulate itself? The Lummis-Gillibrand bill hopes so.

Creating the equivalent of the stock markets’ FINRA for crypto is the ideal, but experts doubt that it will be easy.

The idea of creating a government-sanctioned private regulatory association has been drawing more attention in the debate over how to rein in a fast-growing industry whose technological quirks have baffled policymakers.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Regulating crypto is complicated. That’s why Sens. Cynthia Lummis and Kirsten Gillibrand want to explore the creation of a private sector group to help federal regulators do their job.

The bipartisan bill introduced by Lummis and Gillibrand would require the CFTC and the SEC to work with the crypto industry to look into setting up a self-regulatory organization to “facilitate innovative, efficient and orderly markets for digital assets.”

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Alperovitch: Cybersecurity defenders can’t be on high alert every day

With the continued threat of Russian cyber escalation, cybersecurity and geopolitics expert Dmitri Alperovitch says it’s not ideal for the U.S. to oscillate between moments of high alert and lesser states of cyber readiness.

Dmitri Alperovitch (the co-founder and former CTO of CrowdStrike) speaks at RSA Conference 2022.

Photo: RSA Conference

When it comes to cybersecurity vigilance, Dmitri Alperovitch wants to see more focus on resiliency of IT systems — and less on doing "surges" around particular dates or events.

For instance, whatever Russia is doing at the moment.

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Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@protocol.com.

Policy

How the internet got privatized and how the government could fix it

Author Ben Tarnoff discusses municipal broadband, Web3 and why closing the “digital divide” isn’t enough.

The Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative, which kicked off in May, will roll out grant programs to expand and improve broadband infrastructure, teach digital skills and improve internet access for “everyone in America by the end of the decade.”

Decisions about who is eligible for these grants will be made based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broken, outdated and incorrect broadband maps — maps the FCC plans to update only after funding has been allocated. Inaccurate broadband maps are just one of many barriers to getting everyone in the country successfully online. Internet service providers that use government funds to connect rural and low-income areas have historically provided those regions with slow speeds and poor service, forcing community residents to find reliable internet outside of their homes.

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Aditi Mukund
Aditi Mukund is Protocol’s Data Analyst. Prior to joining Protocol, she was an analyst at The Daily Beast and NPR where she wrangled data into actionable insights for editorial, audience, commerce, subscription, and product teams. She holds a B.S in Cognitive Science, Human Computer Interaction from The University of California, San Diego.
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