Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorIssie LapowskyNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
Protocol | Policy

'She got into the weeds': Biden’s associate AG pick is a top tech watchdog

Vanita Gupta has worked alongside Facebook, Airbnb and others on civil rights issues. Now, she will help lead the Justice Department.

'She got into the weeds': Biden’s associate AG pick is a top tech watchdog

Vanita Gupta (second from left) has worked with fellow civil rights advocates in pushing tech leaders including Sheryl Sandberg (second from right) to take their civil rights obligations seriously.

Photo: Color of Change

Wednesday's riots at the Capitol all but ensured that Democrats, newly empowered by their majority in Congress, will be coming for the social media companies they say played a key role in fueling the insurrection. Now, those lawmakers might also have an ally in the Justice Department, which has been a key critic of tech's many misdeeds for years.

On Thursday, buried under the news rubble of Wednesday's siege, President-elect Biden nominated Vanita Gupta to be associate attorney general of the United States. While Gupta is best known as the former head of the Justice Department's civil rights unit under President Obama, over the last few years, as CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Gupta has often sat shoulder-to-shoulder with tech leaders including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, urging them to think through some of the most challenging content moderation dilemmas they face and pushing them to do more to stop online chatter from spilling over into offline harm.

In public remarks following her nomination, Gupta called Wednesday's events "horrific" and said: "The Department of Justice, as it has done throughout history, will have to uncover and reckon with hard truths; hold people, companies, and institutions accountable to our Constitution and laws; drive change where there is injustice; and heal a nation starving for decency and hope."

This summer, as racial justice protests raged across the country, Gupta was part of a group of civil rights leaders who met virtually with Zuckerberg, urging him to crack down on voter suppression ahead of November's election and take action against President Trump's violent threats about the protests in Minnesota. "We were stunned about the different interpretations about what voter suppression really means and looks like in this era," Gupta told Protocol this summer, referring to that meeting. "The company has not been sufficiently enforcing the policies because of the fundamental disagreement around what constitutes voter suppression."

Gupta also worked closely with Airbnb on its civil rights efforts, including a new research initiative called Project Lighthouse, which is studying discrimination on the platform.

While the last few years have bred a cottage industry of professional tech critics, people who have worked closely with Gupta in this area say she's been particularly influential in effecting actual change. "There are a lot of people who talk a lot and have a lot to say and don't get a lot done. Vanita is a person who gets a lot done," said Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. Robinson noted that Gupta was particularly influential in persuading Facebook to take action on disinformation surrounding the U.S. Census. "Vanita was incredibly important and did a lot of work behind the scenes," Robinson said. "The type of work that never ends up in the press, that doesn't end up talked about publicly or heralded."

"Vanita really encouraged her staff to get into the weeds — and she got into the weeds as well — on tech policy," said Laura Murphy, president of Laura Murphy & Associates, who has conducted civil rights audits of both Facebook and Airbnb and who worked closely with Gupta during her time at the American Civil Liberties Union.

During her audits of both companies, Murphy said she saw Gupta become a "tremendous partner" to Facebook and Airbnb. "She went in there delivering a hard line about the implications of their decisions for civil rights, but she did engage them with a great deal of grace, and they, in turn, really felt in awe of her and relied on her," Murphy said. "I think she had a huge impact on the decisions Facebook made closer to the election."

One issue Gupta advocated for at Facebook in particular was the creation of the Voter Information Center, which launched last year. "It is really significant that through our collective efforts, Facebook finally did some urgent stuff like creating the Voter Information Center," Gupta told Protocol last summer. "Getting that kind of accurate information out to Facebook users is crucial." But at the time, Gupta said she was continuing to press the company on issues of voter suppression, particularly when it came to President Trump's own posts about the election. Now, months later, Facebook has taken the unprecedented step of blocking President Trump from posting for the remainder of his presidency.

Murphy said that Gupta's move back to the public sector will be "a loss" for the companies that sought out her expertise. While she hasn't withheld criticism of these companies, she hasn't been as antagonistic as some other groups either. Last summer, for instance, under Gupta's watch, The Leadership Conference stayed out of a widespread #StopHateforProfit advertising boycott. Airbnb declined to comment for this story, and Facebook didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

Of course, as associate attorney general, serving under attorney general nominee Merrick Garland, Gupta will have a lot more on her plate than just addressing the tech industry's faults. But both Murphy and Robinson predict Gupta's intimate experience working with the tech sector will be invaluable to the Department of Justice. She comes to the position having looked at these issues from the companies' perspective and the perspective of the grassroots movements that she collaborated with, Robinson said. "I'm glad there is someone who has experienced those meetings and sat in those rooms," he said. "Unless you have, you don't get it."

That's especially important as the country's top law enforcement officials sort through messy questions about how laws that apply to the offline world ought to apply online: Should Section 230 immunize tech platforms from being held liable for civil rights violations they enable? How do fair housing laws apply in a world of automated, on-demand digital advertising? What is the definition of voter suppression online? And how does the tech sector's enormous scale and power brush up against the country's antitrust laws?

Murphy believes Gupta is well-positioned to help the federal government answer some of those questions: not from the perspective of an insider, but from the perspective of one of the few legal scholars and civil rights advocates who has seen these companies from the inside out. "She's going to bring her tech fluency to the leadership of the Justice Department," Murphy said. "That can only help America."

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.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

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.

Keep Reading Show less
Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
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.

Keep Reading Show less
Zeyi Yang
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.
Power

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.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
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.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories