posted 1 day ago on re/code
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, companies promised to make their boards more diverse. | FangXiaNuo via Getty Images Companies promised to make their boards more diverse. Here’s how to actually do it. After a national reckoning in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests around the country, public and private companies alike vowed to add Black directors to their corporate boards. Some promising developments suggest greater board diversity could actually happen. There are also other ways companies could hurry it along. Nasdaq submitted a proposal in December that would require companies listed on its exchange to report their board diversity and have — or at least explain why they don’t have — at least one person who identifies as a woman and one person who identifies as an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ person on their board. Investment companies BlackRock and State Street are asking companies they invest in to report their board diversity and improve it. Most notably, California passed a law requiring businesses headquartered there to have at least one board member from an underrepresented community by the end of 2021. The diversity of a company’s board is important for a number of reasons. A company’s board of directors is in charge of representing shareholder interests and making sure the company’s financials are accurate, as well as picking the company’s CEO and holding that person to task. The board sets the tone for the whole company, and its members serve as an example for what the company stands for. “Employees, customers, and investors are diverse,” Nell Minow, vice chair of Value Edge Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in corporate governance issues, said. “If the people playing this essential role are not diverse, how are they going know what they need to know to do their job? They aren’t.” Indeed, a board affects how a company functions and how well it performs. A number of studies, including ones by McKinsey & Company, BCG, and Deloitte, have shown a correlation between diverse leadership and a company’s financial performance. Stocks for socially responsible companies that abide by certain criteria for environmental, social, and corporate governance, or ESG, are outperforming their peers. “Now that we know diverse boards perform better financially, they have a fiduciary responsibility to diversify,” Stephanie Lampkin, founder and CEO of diversity analytics and hiring software company Blendoor, told Recode. Despite all this, boards are too often woefully white and male. Nasdaq found that in the six months prior to its diversity proposal, 75 percent of companies listed on the exchange wouldn’t have met the proposal’s arguably easy diversity requirements. Women hold only about a quarter of board seats at the biggest 1,000 companies in the US, according to corporate governance data firm Equilar. While there’s slight variation by industry, it’s uniformly low. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-YX2pu");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-YX2pu");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() The same goes for ethnic diversity. Board representation of Black, Latinx, and Asian people is typically way lower than their representation in the population at large. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-ZAyBa");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-ZAyBa");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() And while diversity has ticked up, change has been very slow going. What companies can do to speed things up Many companies have made excuses for why their boards aren’t diverse, and their reasoning generally boils down to a couple things: 1) It takes time, or 2) There aren’t enough diverse people in the pool. Fortunately, both those problems are solvable. Companies often point to the fact that they can add diverse candidates only when board seats open up. However, there’s nothing obligating board members to keep nominating themselves at the end of their typically one- to three-year terms. Of course, having a seat on a board comes with a lot of perks, such as pay and stock options, so board members are loath to give that up. So instead of waiting for members to leave, companies could potentially add more board seats and fill those with diverse candidates. Companies could also install tenure limits to accomplish the same goal. The average director tenure is currently around eight years, down from nine and a half years in 2015, according to Equilar. Limits could ensure more turnover. Then there’s the pipeline problem: Companies often look for CEOs and former CEOs to fill board seats. The chief executive role is a rarified position that also suffers from a lack of diversity, so using a feeder pool known for that is a bad place to start. Instead, companies should continue to look further afield for new board members. Broadening their base of board candidates to include general counsels, law school professors, heads of charities, cyber security experts, and business school professors, among others, will lead to greater diversity of thought as well as of gender and race. Otherwise, what’s the point? In Minow’s words: “Why not just have one person on the board if they’re all coming from the same place?” There’s huge moral and financial pressure on companies right now to diversify their boards. Some are making progress, but it might take some more systematic change before we get to more diverse, inclusive corporate boards from the companies who promised it last summer.

Read More...
posted 1 day ago on re/code
Amazon’s downtown Seattle campus. | Meron Menghistab for Vox Interviews with diversity managers and internal data obtained by Recode indicate that Black Amazon employees are promoted less frequently and are rated more harshly than non-Black peers. When Chanin Kelly-Rae started working at Amazon in 2019 as a global manager of diversity in the company’s cloud computing division, she had big ambitions for her new job. She had nearly two decades of experience leading diversity and inclusion efforts inside important institutions, like Washington state’s governor’s office, but she’d never worked at an influential global business leader like Amazon. But less than a year later, Kelly-Rae quit. Her tenure inside the company convinced her that Amazon’s corporate workplace has deep, systemic issues that disadvantage Black employees and workers from other underrepresented backgrounds. And she was dismayed by her perception that Amazon leadership was unwilling to listen to internal experts about how to identify and fix these problems. “Amazon was not doing things in a way that represents best practices that would advance diversity and inclusion in any way that is meaningful and thoughtful,” she told Recode. “Let me add: Amazon appeared to be taking steps backward instead of forward.” Meron Menghistab for Vox Chanin Kelly-Rae was a manager of diversity for a division of Amazon Web Services in 2019. Kelly-Rae, who is Black, is one of more than a dozen former and current Amazon corporate employees — 10 of whom are Black — who told Recode in interviews over the past few months that they felt the company has failed to create a corporate-wide environment where all Black employees feel welcomed and respected. Instead, they told Recode that, in their experience, Black employees at the company often face both direct and insidious bias that harms their careers and personal lives. All of the current and former employees, other than Kelly-Rae, spoke on condition of anonymity either because of the terms of their employment with Amazon or because they fear retribution from Amazon for speaking out about their experiences. Current and former Amazon diversity and inclusion professionals — employees whose work focuses on helping Amazon create and maintain an equitable workplace and products — told Recode that internal data shows that Amazon’s review and promotion systems have created an unlevel playing field. Black employees receive “least effective” marks more often than all other colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers. Recode reviewed some of this data for the Amazon Web Services division of the company, and it shows large disparities in performance review ratings between Black and white employees. “We struggle to bring [Black] folks in because there’s not a whole lot of desire, in my opinion, to go outside of our normal practices,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “And then when they do get here, it’s harder to get promoted, harder to get top-tier rated, and easier to get lowest-tier. All those things combined make it so folks don’t wanna stay. And folks will leave Amazon and go take on more senior roles elsewhere.” Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson provided Recode with a statement that said: “We disagree with this characterization of Amazon’s culture and believe that it misrepresents the facts and is based on the views of a small number of individuals.” Amazon’s statement continued: We work hard to build an inclusive culture that welcomes, celebrates, and values all people, but we’re disappointed if even one person has a negative experience. Teams across Amazon have hired hundreds of thousands of Black employees and thousands of Black managers, and our retention data and employee surveys illustrate that they have similar attrition rates and greater job satisfaction and feelings of inclusion than their non-Black colleagues. We recognize we have work to do, including increasing Black representation at all levels, and we set — and met — aggressive goals to double the representation of Black Vice Presidents and Directors in 2020 and are committing to do so again in 2021. We encourage anyone to compare our goals and progress towards achieving those goals with other large employers. Some of those who spoke to Recode recounted what they saw as biased interactions inside Amazon’s corporate offices, including a white male manager who told a Black female employee, unprompted, that his ancestors “owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves.” Others described microaggressions like being called out by managers and peers for not smiling or being friendly enough. They told Recode that even when they reported these kinds of interactions to human resources, the offending colleagues often faced few or no repercussions, especially in cases where there were no other witnesses. Many of these employees work or worked for Amazon Web Services, the division of Amazon that is run by longtime Amazon executive Andy Jassy, whom Jeff Bezos recently announced will succeed him as Amazon CEO later this year. Still, several said they believe that Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company. Isaac Brekken/AP Andy Jassy, then the CEO of Amazon Web Services, announces a new initiative with the NFL in 2019. The employees Recode interviewed said the racial bias they encountered at Amazon affected them in a multitude of meaningful ways: Four of the Black women who spoke to Recode said they sought mental health counseling while at Amazon, either solely or in large part because of their experience working at the company. Some workers said treatment from colleagues and managers compelled them to leave the company, even though they’d once viewed it as the opportunity of their dreams. And some stuck it out at the company by transferring roles, and even taking demotions, to escape toxic bosses. One current employee said she’s still at Amazon because she believes she can make a difference. “Changing the system from inside tends to be most effective,” she said. Some of those interviewed said that not all teams and managers perpetuate these racial biases at the company. And several told Recode they were heartened when company leaders, including Bezos, spoke out publicly last year to condemn police killings of Black Americans and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But they all said their view is that the company is plagued by systemic issues that disproportionately harm Black employees — and several faulted the company’s senior leadership team, known as the S-team, for not focusing enough on identifying and implementing the right strategies to fix the biases. Some employees also told Recode that they think the human resources division has not done enough to root out employees that they feel have discriminated against them or their Black colleagues. And these issues extend far beyond Amazon’s corporate workforce, as seen last spring after Amazon fired a Black warehouse manager named Christian Smalls, who had organized a small employee walkout at a facility to protest what the group said were inadequate health protections for workers during the early weeks of the pandemic. Amazon’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky, later referred to Smalls as “not smart, or articulate” in notes from a meeting with Bezos and other company leaders. After these notes leaked to the press, Amazon white-collar employees fumed over the treatment of Smalls and Zapolsky’s choice of words, which were viewed as offensive at best and racist at worst. These allegations matter because the company is the second-largest private sector employer in the US, and how Amazon hires, treats, and retains Black employees directly impacts the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the tech giant. Beyond that, Amazon’s runaway success makes it a model for other businesses that try to emulate its internal culture and labor practices. But it also matters because Amazon runs businesses across varied industries — from retail to media to cloud computing to facial recognition software — and the decisions its leaders make, and experiences and points of view that inform their decisions, have the power to positively or negatively affect tens of millions of other Americans far outside of Amazon’s walls. Kelly-Rae, for her part, said Amazon’s massive reach and power come with great responsibility. “They have access to our lives in more ways than any other company,” she said. “The best thing they can do when creating opportunity is make sure that opportunity is enjoyed universally and not kept from some because of who they are.” “Amazon is really good at things it wants to be good at,” she added, “and if Amazon decided it really wanted to be good at this, I have no doubt it can be.” “You don’t need the data” Kelly-Rae was only a month into her job as a diversity and inclusion leader for a department in Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division, when she started to realize the work ahead would be daunting. She had gathered with the rest of Amazon’s diversity and inclusion employees at the company’s Seattle, Washington, headquarters for an inaugural all-staff meeting in January 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. The teams had gathered for the first-annual internal diversity summit to share feedback, learn from their peers and leaders, and discuss goals and the right strategies to meet them. During a Q&A session with employees at that summit, tensions rose as employees started questioning Beth Galetti, Amazon’s head of human resources and a member of Bezos’s S-team. According to three people who were present at the event, some employees were concerned about what they saw as a lack of resources for diversity and inclusion work, and they wanted to know why Amazon has for years failed to hit certain S-team goals related to the percentage of job applicants from underrepresented racial backgrounds who get an in-person interview. The conversation reached a boiling point when Galetti was asked why D&I employees at Amazon who work outside of the HR department don’t have access to more granular data about the demographics of the workforce across different management levels. At the @SeattleChamber #RLC2017 where Beth Galetti, Amazon’s SVP for HR, talks about our leadership principles and our investment in talent. pic.twitter.com/2AZKIhVy3H— Jared Axelrod (@JaredAxelrod) October 20, 2017 “You don’t need the data to do your job,” was Galetti’s approximate response, the three sources said. “That left everyone in the room aghast,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “If the data doesn’t matter, then that body of work doesn’t matter.” Those in attendance said the response was shocking not only because Amazon leaders boast about the central role data plays in everything the tech giant does, but also because data analysis is crucial in identifying problems and opportunities in diversity and inclusion work. “That’s the antithesis of what you would say about anything at Amazon,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. The Amazon spokesperson said employees at the summit misunderstood Galetti’s intent and that she meant it wasn’t necessary to access the requested data to know Amazon needs to make progress in D&I, or to prove to company leaders that more needs to be done. After Galetti’s comment, Kelly-Rae raised her hand to explain to Galetti the importance of such data. She then approached Galetti afterward to introduce herself, and to offer to continue the conversation at a later date. “She told me when I was at Amazon longer, then I could talk to her,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “And she walked away from me.” Kelly-Rae left Amazon in September after just 10 months; she is now focused exclusively on a consulting business she founded 20 years ago, Chanin Kelly-Rae Consulting. She says the comments by Galetti, who is white, were one of the earliest signs in her brief tenure at Amazon that led her to believe the executive team was not truly interested in making it a priority to attract and retain employees from underrepresented backgrounds. Meron Menghistab for Vox Chanin Kelly-Rae now runs her own consulting business based in Seattle. On the surface, Amazon’s diversity statistics look better than most tech giants: In 2019, 26.5 percent of employees identified as Black. But the main reason for that is the disproportionate number of Black workers employed in Amazon’s lower-paying front-line workforce — the hundreds of thousands of workers who pick, pack, and ship orders out of Amazon warehouses and, in some cases, deliver them to customer doors. (Amazon hasn’t publicly released data on the racial breakdown between its corporate and front-line workforces since 2016.) Around 11 percent of Amazon managers in 2020 were Black, including both corporate staff and front-line warehouse and physical store positions. (Black Americans make up 12 percent of the entire private sector workforce across the US, but just 7 percent of managerial roles, according to new research from the consulting firm McKinsey.) In 2020, Amazon said it doubled its number of Black directors and vice presidents and would aim to do the same in 2021; Amazon has around 400 vice presidents globally, but only around a dozen are Black. But even directors and VPs aren’t necessarily at the top of Amazon’s hierarchy, where corporate employees are slotted into Levels 4 through 12, which is occupied solely by Bezos (and soon, presumably, future CEO Jassy). The top leadership team, the S-team, is composed of about two dozen executives, including everyone at Level 11, and a select few VPs, who sit at Level 10. This exclusive group meets regularly to discuss long-term ideas as well as pressing issues, and to also set or approve goals for important initiatives across the company, including the diversity goals pertaining to directors and VPs. But the S-team hasn’t set a similar goal of doubling Black representation among its own group for 2021. Only this summer did Amazon finally name its first Black leader to the S-team: Alicia Boler Davis, a vice president who runs the company’s warehouse network worldwide. Amazon’s spokesperson said the company has not set a goal to double Black S-team representation in 2021 but declined to provide a reason. Win McNamee/Getty Images Former VP at General Motors, Alicia Boler-Davis, far right, attends President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012. Beside her is Warren Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek (far left), and Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and chair of Emerson Collective. For Kelly-Rae, this goal to double the company’s Black VPs and directors is not enough. “If Amazon was to ever enjoy wholesale success in diversity and inclusion programming, they need to have experienced D&I practitioners represented at every level,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “They need someone on the S-team.” For other Black managers in the division, Galetti’s “you don’t need the data” moment was an inflection point for a different reason. “That, for me, was transformative,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “I thought, ‘Shit, if I can’t get buy-in and help from [Galetti], where do I go?’” Down-leveling All 10 Black employees who spoke to Recode said either they or Black colleagues they know were hired at lower levels in Amazon’s internal hierarchy than their qualifications justify. At Amazon, your level means a lot: It dictates a role’s importance, salary range, and additional compensation (usually in the form of Amazon stock). Coming in at a lower level can set back your career at Amazon by years. “I think there are very serious systemic issues around leveling,” Kelly-Rae said. This observation isn’t merely anecdotal. Kelly-Rae’s former role as a diversity and inclusion manager gave her specific insight into some of the company’s internal hiring and promotion practices. “It is not uncommon for women, and especially Black women, to have a role advertised at one level but extended an offer at a position that is lower.” Such a move even has its own name among Amazon employees: down-leveling. Sources told Recode that’s what happened with Black employees who joined Amazon in 2016 when it acquired Partpic, an Atlanta-based tech startup founded by two Black entrepreneurs. Multiple former Amazon employees familiar with the situation told Recode that both Partpic founders left after approximately three years because they had negative experiences at Amazon. They said the startup’s co-founder/CEO at one point took a demotion so that she could remove herself from a toxic working relationship with a disrespectful boss. And they said she spent considerable time during her tenure fighting for promotions for several employees who had PhDs but were down-leveled when they joined. Sources said Amazon slotted several Black Partpic employees with PhDs into Level 4 roles when they joined the company — the lowest level for any corporate employee, including those who have just finished their undergraduate degree. Another employee, Partpic’s chief technology officer, was placed at Level 5 though some of her peers at Amazon with similar education and work backgrounds were working at Level 6. (She was eventually promoted to Level 6, but it took two years; she later transferred to AWS.) Sources told Recode that the other Partpic co-founder left, in part, because he felt misled and disrespected when Amazon quickly killed the startup’s core technology shortly after it launched as a standalone feature in the Amazon shopping app. Both Partpic founders declined to comment. And for Kelly-Rae, down-leveling wasn’t just something she observed happening to other Black Amazon employees. She said it happened to her. When she received her offer to join Amazon in late 2019, she confronted an unpleasant surprise: Despite her almost 20 years of experience, Amazon slotted her into a management level that was lower than the one a recruiter originally described. That meant a lower salary and fewer shares of Amazon stock. Kelly-Rae’s best guess as to why she was down-leveled? “Culture fit,” she said. This kind of down-leveling can happen at Amazon, in part, because of the company’s hiring process. Interviews are conducted not only by recruiters and hiring managers, but also by soon-to-be peers of the candidate and at least one person outside of the immediate team, called a “bar raiser.” Amazon told Recode these bar raisers are trained, in part, to identify potential bias during the interview process. A single interviewer taking part in what Amazon calls the hiring “loop” can essentially vote against hiring a candidate, or can recommend that a candidate get down-leveled. Candidates are not told why they are being slotted at a certain level, or one lower than the one they were first told. Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, would not confirm or deny Kelly-Rae’s specific claim. She acknowledged that it’s common for candidates to be down-leveled during interview processes, but said this is something that happens to employees from all backgrounds, and that candidates are sometimes even up-leveled. Kelly-Rae said two AWS VPs, including a hiring manager, later acknowledged that she should have been brought on at a higher level, but they hadn’t rectified the mistake by the time she left. Amazon judges its version of “culture fit” by evaluating job candidates, and existing employees during performance reviews, on some of the company’s 14 leadership principles. Several former Black employees pointed to these principles as possible tools for discrimination, and said they could provide cover for some managers to use them against Black employees. The most problematic leadership principle according to these former employees is “Earns Trust,” which reads in full: “Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.” “If you talk to people across Amazon, they’ll say that if the company ever wants to weaponize a leadership principle, the one they go to often is Earns Trust,” Kelly-Rae said. “What does it mean? It’s a catchall. It means nothing so it can mean everything. Someone can say it if they don’t think you are a team player. They can say it if they don’t believe you’ll fall in line. They can say it if they believe you’re someone who pushes back too much. And they can say it if you are someone who doesn’t push back enough. They don’t have to quantify it or qualify it.” Three other former Black Amazon employees interviewed by Recode said the Earns Trust leadership principle was used as reasoning to try to push them, or Black colleagues at the company, out. A Black former Amazon employee told Recode that a director once told them and other Black employees in a candid conversation about the downsides of the company’s values system that “the one they use against Black women specifically was Earns Trust.” After hearing this, this employee said they started pushing back on Earns Trust in hiring and feedback processes because they realized it was “used as a scapegoat. Because no one really dives deep into what that leadership principle means, no one questions it.” Only 15.3 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS in 2019 compared to 22 percent of white employees Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, said when the leadership principles were last revised, in 2015, the S-team evaluated the values to ensure that the importance of diversity and inclusion was incorporated. She pointed to the “Are Right, A Lot,” principle, which says that “leaders are right a lot” but also “seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” Some Amazon employees lobbied management this year for the addition of a 15th Leadership Principle that explicitly relates to the idea of inclusion. “Many of us strongly feel the need to explicitly define inclusion in the Amazon Leadership Principles,” a group of Amazon employees wrote in an internal 12-page document featuring anecdotes of racism and gender discrimination inside the company, according to Business Insider. Amazon leadership has not adopted it. Kelly-Rae’s personal experiences, as well as what she observed around her as a diversity leader, convinced her that she shouldn’t just quietly leave Amazon. “Sometimes you need people willing to be brave to say there’s a lot of stuff that is wrong that needs to be looked at critically in order to be fixed,” Kelly-Rae said. “I am willing to put my neck out and to put skin in the game, because if leaders in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s didn’t do it, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. I am putting my neck out so that in five years or 10 years or 20 years, someone will look back and say, ‘I’m glad that somebody put their neck out to effect meaningful change so that we can continue to move forward as a society one organization at a time.’” Promotions? Good luck. The level that an employee is slotted into when they join Amazon wouldn’t be such a big deal for these employees if getting a promotion wasn’t such an ordeal. But Amazon is notorious in the tech industry as a difficult place to get a promotion for people from all backgrounds. And diversity and inclusion experts who’ve worked at Amazon said this already steep challenge is even harder for Black, Latinx, and Native American (BLNA) employees. They told Recode that internal data shows promotion rates are lower for Black employees, as well as Latino and Native American employees, when compared to employees of other races at the company, such as whites and Asians. For this reason, the current diversity manager who spoke to Recode tells Black friends who apply to Amazon that they should not accept any employment level at the company where they won’t be happy remaining “for the long run.” Amazon performance reviews also seem to show signs of bias, according to internal data viewed by Recode. In AWS, for example, 12.7 percent of Black employees received the lowest rating — dubbed “least effective” — in annual performance reviews for 2018, compared to just 6.6 percent of white employees. The overall internal goal for this tier is 5 percent of employees. Similarly, only 14.5 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS that year, compared to 21.8 percent of white employees. Amazon’s internal target for this tier is 20 percent. Performance ratings for 2019 also showed disparities, though slightly smaller. Around 10.2 percent of Black AWS employees received a “least effective” designation, compared to 6.2 percent of white employees. Meanwhile, 15.3 percent of Black AWS employees received the highest performance rating in 2019, compared to about 22 percent of white workers. Recode also viewed partial data for 2020 that suggests the gap is slowly shrinking but that disparities along racial lines remain. Amazon disputed all of this data but declined to provide alternate information. “It is not uncommon for women, and especially Black women, to have a role advertised at one level but extended an offer at a position that is lower” An Amazon diversity manager also stressed that the company-wide disparities in ratings according to race might be even worse if not for a practice in which higher-ups at Amazon sometimes instruct lower-level managers to reevaluate grades if the racial or gender disparities in annual reviews for a given department are too great. Of the performance review disparities, this diversity manager said: “That affects your eligibility for promotion, your income, and, in my opinion, just your well-being. The challenge is when we push back and say, ‘Hey, this shouldn’t be the case; the curves should be equitable on racial and gender lines,’ the feedback is always the exact same thing: ‘Perhaps they don’t meet the bar.’” The idea of “meeting the bar” also comes up in conversations related to recruiting new employees out of historically Black colleges and universities, according to this manager. Amazon has in recent years put more effort into recruiting from HBCUs and last year created a two-semester entertainment industry program in Los Angeles in partnership with Howard University. But it is not uncommon for business managers at Amazon to question the idea of hiring for corporate roles from HBCUs that are not as well-known as Howard University or Spelman College. A common rhetorical question from managers, according to this internal source: “Do these universities meet the bar?” The diversity manager said that this kind of blanket skepticism of an entire institution was unique to HBCUs below the very top tier, and not expressed for lesser-known universities that aren’t HBCUs. Anderson, the company spokesperson, argued that this type of anecdote is not representative of Amazon’s relationship with HBCUs, and noted that Amazon hosted its first annual career event for more than 200 HBCU students from dozens of colleges in early 2020. The diversity manager disagrees: “In my opinion, it’s coded language to say these students are not the caliber of students we go after.” One current Amazon employee, who is a Black woman, shared an experience with Recode that fits into this pattern. She told Recode she believes race played a role in her inability to get a promotion. Although she was on a promotion track, when she got a new white male boss, she said he repeatedly moved the goalposts on what she needed to earn the promotion. After pushing back again and again, she ultimately transferred to another team, where she still works. Looking back, she believes he was taken aback that she fought for herself and didn’t back down. “I don’t think that these people ever thought I would push it as far as I did,” she said. “They didn’t think that — no offense — a little Black girl was going to do shit. Historically speaking, white men especially felt that with people of color, ‘I own your body, mind, labor, and output, and how dare you challenge me on this.’ The fact that I was vocal when there were problems and I made waves because things weren’t right — this person didn’t like that I challenged him.” She has since found a new team and manager that she enjoys working with, and hopes that continuing to speak up internally will help spur some positive change at Amazon. At the same time, she believes that talking about her experiences publicly can also help pressure the company to make positive changes. “I have been at Amazon long enough to actually see change happen because of articles being reported,” she added. Eyes wide open Several of the Black current and former employees who spoke to Recode said that when they decided to join Amazon, they knew it had a reputation for a cutthroat culture — regardless of race — and that the tech giant, like its Big Tech counterparts, had shortcomings when it came to hiring Black employees and managers into corporate roles and then retaining that talent. But considering the pay, the type of work they would do, and the boost Amazon would bring to their résumés, they felt the opportunity would be worth it. But some say the discrimination they encountered at Amazon was worse than they could have imagined. They said it took a toll on them both at work and at home, negatively impacting their health and personal relationships. Their troubling experiences are varied, but many share common themes. One Amazon employee who is a Black woman says she has heard two white colleagues proclaim that they do not believe in corporate diversity efforts. Two Black women said coworkers touched their hair without asking. Three Black women told Recode that either coworkers or managers have told them at various times to smile more or be more friendly. And several Black women told Recode that they’ve had to deal with white colleagues and managers stealing credit for their work. Dee Dwyer for Vox Many former employees spoke to Recode on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I think the ‘accomplishment’ of getting a corporate role at Amazon — the best-paying role of my life — and the opportunity to do something at a scale I never imagined, ended up with pain and trauma I could not have anticipated,” a Black female PhD who worked at Amazon for several years told Recode. “I’ve never felt more used and disposable in my life,” she added. Another Black female Amazon employee detailed interactions with a white manager, on DiscoTech, a website created last fall for employees to anonymously share stories about discrimination they’ve encountered working inside large US tech companies. “He would say ‘You know I’m a good guy right? My ancestors owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves,’” the anecdote on DiscoTech reads. “Seeing as how he’s a manager and I’m an individual contributor, I wondered if he saw me as a slave. I asked him ‘What is it about me that makes you feel comfortable saying these things to me?’ His reply, ‘because you look safe and smart.’ As a lighter skinned black woman, I felt he shared this because his default perception of black people is that we are ‘dangerous and not smart.’” The anecdote continued: “He then goes on to tell me, ‘I have a friend who is black as night but I don’t care if you’re purple or polka dot; I don’t see color.’ I confronted him about his offensive comments and he apologized. He had to go to mandated D&I training. The company didn’t acknowledge the totality of his comments and cherry picked the one they would address him about.” A person familiar with the incidents confirmed them to Recode last year. In a statement, the company said: Amazon works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one of our 950,000+ employees, and these anecdotes do not reflect our values. We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in the workplace and investigate all claims reported by employees to Amazon Human Resources or through our anonymous Ethics Hotline. “There is no quick fix” The employees who’ve stayed at Amazon are sticking it out for now and looking for any signs of positive change. One bright spot was the appointment of Boler Davis, the global warehouse chief, to the S-team in August. Others are also holding out hope that Jassy, Bezos’s successor, will play a direct role in pushing diversity and inclusion initiatives forward at the company. While many of the sources who spoke to Recode told stories of discrimination inside of AWS, several said they believe Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company, based on notes he’s sent to employees over the last year and his role as executive sponsor of company’s Black Employee Network affinity group, which has 34 internal chapters in various US cities and countries around the globe. But they were skeptical that one person, even the CEO, could turn the ship completely in the right direction. In 2020, Amazon began requiring all employees to take diversity and inclusion training, and signed up as a launch employer for a third-party racial equity evaluation called the Management Leadership of Tomorrow’s Black Equity at Work Certification. Amazon also held a virtual “career enrichment” summit called Represent the Future that was attended by 5,000 Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals interested in learning about working at Amazon. Well-deserved recognition for a terrific leader. We have a lot of work to do, Angelina, but committed to working with you & the entire Amazon Black Employee Network (BEN) to make meaningful change. https://t.co/xAYd6dRlEQ— Andy Jassy (@ajassy) December 4, 2020 Some employees also hope Amazon’s goal of doubling the number of Black VPs and directors leads to more promotions and hiring of lower-level Black employees. But Kelly-Rae, the former AWS diversity manager, said that although those goals sound great, they have significant limitations. One of the biggest issues, according to her, is that there are not S-team leaders whose compensation or job security is tied to building a more diverse and inclusive company. (Starbucks, for example, announced in October that the compensation of top company executives would be affected by diversity and inclusion successes or failures.) The Amazon spokesperson said that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year, a majority of the leaders in this exclusive group started meeting every two weeks with HR and D&I leaders to evaluate diversity goals and new investment opportunities, while discussing how to remove roadblocks to progress. Another former Amazon diversity and inclusion employee said they’re bothered that the goal of “doubling” Black representation has become a boasting point for some at Amazon. They said they heard an AWS business leader brag about how the goals would be perceived externally, saying that “No other company can say that they’re doubling their number of Black VPs.” We're at @Code2040 as part of our #WIRED25 festival. Mimi Fox Melton, Senior Director of Community Mobilization, says that according to research by the Kapor Center, on average people of color leave the tech industry within 3 years of entering. pic.twitter.com/dNTGIQ4lFT— WIRED (@WIRED) October 12, 2018 “I think that tying executive compensation to any sort of goal is effective,” said Mimi Fox Melton, the acting CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit focused on racial equity in the tech industry. “And certainly at Code2040, what we’ve found is that efforts at a company where the C-suite has not bought into the importance ... of racial equity, fail — period.” Fox Melton added that the goals need to be tied to metrics that go deeper than mere hiring or retaining numbers, and should track “the material experience of those people at work and whether or not those people are experiencing cultures that help us contribute to the fullness of our capacity.” New research from McKinsey found that only 23 percent of Black employees across the US private sector believe that they receive “a lot” or “quite a bit” of support from their respective employers to advance their careers. Amazon tracks the experience of all employees through Connections, an HR program that asks employees to answer a daily question about working at the company. The company says the answers remain anonymous. The Amazon spokesperson said that data from this program over the last year shows that Black employees express higher job satisfaction and feelings of inclusion than non-Black peers. Diversity employees who spoke to Recode questioned the findings and said Amazon workers don’t always feel safe responding honestly to the company’s questions. Either way, if Amazon took steps like tying leadership compensation to such goals, or stood out as a leader in the space in other ways, it would be sending a message internally, but also in the broader tech industry. “If a big company, in particular, really dedicated itself and put its weight behind diversity and, more specifically, racial equity, it would send shockwaves throughout the tech industry,” Fox Melton said. “Hopefully they would share their successes and failures and really pave the path that others follow.” “One of the biggest challenges for companies is that there is no quick fix,” she added. “It’s not going away with three or four years of minimal effort.” Several of the Black employees who spoke to Recode acknowledged that Amazon isn’t alone among the tech giants when it comes to diversity issues and accusations of internal racial discrimination. Current and former employees of tech giants, including Google and Facebook, have made such claims in the past year. But they believe that should only raise the bar for Amazon to be a leader in this work, and take actions that back up its words. “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” Amazon wrote in a blog post last year. “Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” Kelly-Rae believes Amazon can be a model for other tech giants because it is already a proven leader in industries as varied as online retail, cloud computing, and video streaming. “Tech is collectively looking for a solution, and if one of them presents the solution, others will follow,” she said. But to accomplish this, “what is required is a robust strategy where there is accountability at every level,” she told Recode. Meron Menghistab for Vox “Sometimes you need people willing to be brave to say there’s a lot of stuff that is wrong that needs to be looked at critically in order to be fixed.” —Chanin Kelly-Rae Kelly-Rae said she worked with many colleagues who were striving to make Amazon a more inclusive and equitable company for all people, no matter their race or gender. But she fears little progress will be made if the company’s top leadership team doesn’t do more. “I think they believe that diversity and inclusion is just recruiting and training,” she said. “I think they think that’s all that it is. I sent an email to Jeff Bezos, and copied Andy Jassy, that said, ‘You don’t respect the discipline of diversity management or you don’t understand it.’” Company-wide goals that the S-team sets carry a lot of weight, and new ones related to race may have a positive impact on the experiences of Black Amazonians. But Kelly-Rae said from her career-long experience, Amazon cannot transform into a company with a level playing field for all employees if the top leadership team does not include an executive with expertise in the field. “If HR is important, they have an executive on the S-team,” Kelly-Rae said. “If infrastructure is important to Amazon, they have representation on the S-team. And more importantly, they make data-informed decisions and there’s a senior person having to produce based on data.” “People track things,” she added, “that matter to them.”

Read More...
posted 1 day ago on re/code
Amazon’s downtown Seattle campus. | Meron Menghistab for Vox Interviews with diversity managers and internal data obtained by Recode find that Black Amazon employees are promoted less frequently and are rated more harshly than non-Black peers. When Chanin Kelly-Rae started working at Amazon in 2019 as a global head of diversity in the company’s cloud computing division, she had big ambitions for her new job. She had nearly two decades of experience leading diversity and inclusion efforts inside important institutions, like Washington state’s governor’s office, but she’d never worked at an influential global business leader like Amazon. But less than a year later, Kelly-Rae quit. Her tenure inside the company convinced her that Amazon’s corporate workplace has deep, systemic issues that disadvantage Black employees and workers from other underrepresented backgrounds. And she was dismayed by her perception that Amazon leadership was unwilling to listen to internal experts about how to identify and fix these problems. “Amazon was not doing things in a way that represents best practices that would advance diversity and inclusion in any way that is meaningful and thoughtful,” she told Recode. “Let me add: Amazon appeared to be taking steps backward instead of forward.” Meron Menghistab for Vox Chanin Kelly-Rae was a head of diversity for Amazon Web Services in 2019. Kelly-Rae, who is Black, is one of more than a dozen former and current Amazon corporate employees — 10 of whom are Black — who told Recode in interviews over the past few months that they felt the company has failed to create a corporate-wide environment where all Black employees feel welcomed and respected. Instead, they told Recode that, in their experience, Black employees at the company often face both direct and insidious bias that harms their careers and personal lives. All of the current and former employees, other than Kelly-Rae, spoke on condition of anonymity either because of the terms of their employment with Amazon or because they fear retribution from Amazon for speaking out about their experiences. Current and former Amazon diversity and inclusion professionals — employees whose work focuses on helping Amazon create and maintain an equitable workplace and products — told Recode that internal data shows that Amazon’s review and promotion systems have created an unlevel playing field. Black employees receive “least effective” marks more often than all other colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers. Recode reviewed some of this data for the Amazon Web Services division of the company, and it shows large disparities in performance review ratings between Black and white employees. “We struggle to bring [Black] folks in because there’s not a whole lot of desire, in my opinion, to go outside of our normal practices,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “And then when they do get here, it’s harder to get promoted, harder to get top-tier rated, and easier to get lowest-tier. All those things combined make it so folks don’t wanna stay. And folks will leave Amazon and go take on more senior roles elsewhere.” Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson provided Recode with a statement that said: “We disagree with this characterization of Amazon’s culture and believe that it misrepresents the facts and is based on the views of a small number of individuals.” Amazon’s statement continued: We work hard to build an inclusive culture that welcomes, celebrates, and values all people, but we’re disappointed if even one person has a negative experience. Teams across Amazon have hired hundreds of thousands of Black employees and thousands of Black managers, and our retention data and employee surveys illustrate that they have similar attrition rates and greater job satisfaction and feelings of inclusion than their non-Black colleagues. We recognize we have work to do, including increasing Black representation at all levels, and we set — and met — aggressive goals to double the representation of Black Vice Presidents and Directors in 2020 and are committing to do so again in 2021. We encourage anyone to compare our goals and progress towards achieving those goals with other large employers. Some of those who spoke to Recode recounted what they saw as biased interactions inside Amazon’s corporate offices, including a white male manager who told a Black female employee, unprompted, that his ancestors “owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves.” Others described microaggressions like being called out by managers and peers for not smiling or being friendly enough. They told Recode that even when they reported these kinds of interactions to human resources, the offending colleagues often faced few or no repercussions, especially in cases where there were no other witnesses. Many of these employees work or worked for Amazon Web Services, the division of Amazon that is run by longtime Amazon executive Andy Jassy, whom Jeff Bezos recently announced will succeed him as Amazon CEO later this year. Still, several said they believe that Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company. Isaac Brekken/AP Andy Jassy, then the CEO of Amazon Web Services, announces a new initiative with the NFL in 2019. The employees Recode interviewed said the racial bias they encountered at Amazon affected them in a multitude of meaningful ways: Four of the Black women who spoke to Recode said they sought mental health counseling while at Amazon, either solely or in large part because of their experience working at the company. Some workers said treatment from colleagues and managers compelled them to leave the company, even though they’d once viewed it as the opportunity of their dreams. And some stuck it out at the company by transferring roles, and even taking demotions, to escape toxic bosses. One current employee said she’s still at Amazon because she believes she can make a difference. “Changing the system from inside tends to be most effective,” she said. Some of those interviewed said that not all teams and managers perpetuate these racial biases at the company. And several told Recode they were heartened when company leaders, including Bezos, spoke out publicly last year to condemn police killings of Black Americans and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But they all said their view is that the company is plagued by systemic issues that disproportionately harm Black employees — and several faulted the company’s senior leadership team, known as the S-team, for not focusing enough on identifying and implementing the right strategies to fix the biases. Some employees also told Recode that they think the human resources division has not done enough to root out employees that they feel have discriminated against them or their Black colleagues. And these issues extend far beyond Amazon’s corporate workforce, as seen last spring after Amazon fired a Black warehouse manager named Christian Smalls, who had organized a small employee walkout at a facility to protest what the group said were inadequate health protections for workers during the early weeks of the pandemic. Amazon’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky, later referred to Smalls as “not smart, or articulate” in notes from a meeting with Bezos and other company leaders. After these notes leaked to the press, Amazon white-collar employees fumed over the treatment of Smalls and Zapolsky’s choice of words, which were viewed as offensive at best and racist at worst. These allegations matter because the company is the second-largest private sector employer in the US, and how Amazon hires, treats, and retains Black employees directly impacts the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the tech giant. Beyond that, Amazon’s runaway success makes it a model for other businesses that try to emulate its internal culture and labor practices. But it also matters because Amazon runs businesses across varied industries — from retail to media to cloud computing to facial recognition software — and the decisions its leaders make, and experiences and points of view that inform their decisions, have the power to positively or negatively affect tens of millions of other Americans far outside of Amazon’s walls. Kelly-Rae, for her part, said Amazon’s massive reach and power come with great responsibility. “They have access to our lives in more ways than any other company,” she said. “The best thing they can do when creating opportunity is make sure that opportunity is enjoyed universally and not kept from some because of who they are.” “Amazon is really good at things it wants to be good at,” she added, “and if Amazon decided it really wanted to be good at this, I have no doubt it can be.” “You don’t need the data” Kelly-Rae was only a month into her job as a diversity and inclusion leader for a department in Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division, when she started to realize the work ahead would be daunting. She had gathered with the rest of Amazon’s diversity and inclusion employees at the company’s Seattle, Washington, headquarters for an inaugural all-staff meeting in January 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. The teams had gathered for the first-annual internal diversity summit to share feedback, learn from their peers and leaders, and discuss goals and the right strategies to meet them. During a Q&A session with employees at that summit, tensions rose as employees started questioning Beth Galetti, Amazon’s head of human resources and a member of Bezos’s S-team. According to three people who were present at the event, some employees were concerned about what they saw as a lack of resources for diversity and inclusion work, and they wanted to know why Amazon has for years failed to hit certain S-team goals related to the percentage of job applicants from underrepresented racial backgrounds who get an in-person interview. The conversation reached a boiling point when Galetti was asked why D&I employees at Amazon who work outside of the HR department don’t have access to more granular data about the demographics of the workforce across different management levels. At the @SeattleChamber #RLC2017 where Beth Galetti, Amazon’s SVP for HR, talks about our leadership principles and our investment in talent. pic.twitter.com/2AZKIhVy3H— Jared Axelrod (@JaredAxelrod) October 20, 2017 “You don’t need the data to do your job,” was Galetti’s approximate response, the three sources said. “That left everyone in the room aghast,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “If the data doesn’t matter, then that body of work doesn’t matter.” Those in attendance said the response was shocking not only because Amazon leaders boast about the central role data plays in everything the tech giant does, but also because data analysis is crucial in identifying problems and opportunities in diversity and inclusion work. “That’s the antithesis of what you would say about anything at Amazon,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. The Amazon spokesperson said employees at the summit misunderstood Galetti’s intent and that she meant it wasn’t necessary to access the requested data to know Amazon needs to make progress in D&I, or to prove to company leaders that more needs to be done. After Galetti’s comment, Kelly-Rae raised her hand to explain to Galetti the importance of such data. She then approached Galetti afterward to introduce herself, and to offer to continue the conversation at a later date. “She told me when I was at Amazon longer, then I could talk to her,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “And she walked away from me.” Kelly-Rae left Amazon in September after just 10 months; she is now focused exclusively on a consulting business she founded 20 years ago, Chanin Kelly-Rae Consulting. She says the comments by Galetti, who is white, were one of the earliest signs in her brief tenure at Amazon that led her to believe the executive team was not truly interested in making it a priority to attract and retain employees from underrepresented backgrounds. Meron Menghistab for Vox Chanin Kelly-Rae now runs her own consulting business based in Seattle. On the surface, Amazon’s diversity statistics look better than most tech giants: In 2019, 26.5 percent of employees identified as Black. But the main reason for that is the disproportionate number of Black workers employed in Amazon’s lower-paying front-line workforce — the hundreds of thousands of workers who pick, pack, and ship orders out of Amazon warehouses and, in some cases, deliver them to customer doors. (Amazon hasn’t publicly released data on the racial breakdown between its corporate and front-line workforces since 2016.) Around 11 percent of Amazon managers in 2020 were Black, including both corporate staff and front-line warehouse and physical store positions. (Black Americans make up 12 percent of the entire private sector workforce across the US, but just 7 percent of managerial roles, according to new research from the consulting firm McKinsey.) In 2020, Amazon said it doubled its number of Black directors and vice presidents and would aim to do the same in 2021; Amazon has around 400 vice presidents globally, but only around a dozen are Black. But even directors and VPs aren’t necessarily at the top of Amazon’s hierarchy, where corporate employees are slotted into Levels 4 through 12, which is occupied solely by Bezos (and soon, presumably, future CEO Jassy). The top leadership team, the S-team, is composed of about two dozen executives, including everyone at Level 11, and a select few VPs, who sit at Level 10. This exclusive group meets regularly to discuss long-term ideas as well as pressing issues, and to also set goals for important initiatives across the company. But the S-team hasn’t set a similar goal of doubling Black representation for themselves. Only this summer did Amazon finally name its first Black leader to the S-team: Alicia Boler Davis, a vice president who runs the company’s warehouse network worldwide. Amazon’s spokesperson said the company has not set a goal to double Black S-team representation in 2021 but declined to provide a reason. Win McNamee/Getty Images Former VP at General Motors, Alicia Boler-Davis, far right, attends President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012. Beside her is Warren Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek (far left), and Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and chair of Emerson Collective. For Kelly-Rae, this goal to double the company’s Black VPs and directors is not enough. “If Amazon was to ever enjoy wholesale success in diversity and inclusion programming, they need to have experienced D&I practitioners represented at every level,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “They need someone on the S-team.” For other Black managers in the division, Galetti’s “you don’t need the data” moment was an inflection point for a different reason. “That, for me, was transformative,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “I thought, ‘Shit, if I can’t get buy-in and help from [Galetti], where do I go?’” Down-leveling All 10 Black employees who spoke to Recode said either they or Black colleagues they know were hired at lower levels in Amazon’s internal hierarchy than their qualifications justify. At Amazon, your level means a lot: It dictates a role’s importance, salary range, and additional compensation (usually in the form of Amazon stock). Coming in at a lower level can set back your career at Amazon by years. “I think there are very serious systemic issues around leveling,” Kelly-Rae said. This observation isn’t merely anecdotal. Kelly-Rae’s former role as a diversity and inclusion manager gave her specific insight into some of the company’s internal hiring and promotion practices. “It is not uncommon for women, and especially Black women, to have a role advertised at one level but extended an offer at a position that is lower.” Such a move even has its own name among Amazon employees: down-leveling. Sources told Recode that’s what happened with Black employees who joined Amazon in 2016 when it acquired Partpic, an Atlanta-based tech startup founded by two Black entrepreneurs. Multiple former Amazon employees familiar with the situation told Recode that both Partpic founders left after approximately three years because they had negative experiences at Amazon. They said the startup’s co-founder/CEO at one point took a demotion so that she could remove herself from a toxic working relationship with a disrespectful boss. And they said she spent considerable time during her tenure fighting for promotions for several employees who had PhDs but were down-leveled when they joined. Sources said Amazon slotted several Black Partpic employees with PhDs into Level 4 roles when they joined the company — the lowest level for any corporate employee, including those who have just finished their undergraduate degree. Another employee, Partpic’s chief technology officer, was placed at Level 5 though some of her peers at Amazon with similar education and work backgrounds were working at Level 6. (She was eventually promoted to Level 6, but it took two years; she later transferred to AWS.) Sources told Recode that the other Partpic co-founder left, in part, because he felt misled and disrespected when Amazon quickly killed the startup’s core technology shortly after it launched as a standalone feature in the Amazon shopping app. Both Partpic founders declined to comment. And for Kelly-Rae, down-leveling wasn’t just something she observed happening to other Black Amazon employees. She said it happened to her. When she received her offer to join Amazon in late 2019, she confronted an unpleasant surprise: Despite her almost 20 years of experience, Amazon slotted her into a management level that was lower than the one a recruiter originally described. That meant a lower salary and fewer shares of Amazon stock. Kelly-Rae’s best guess as to why she was down-leveled? “Culture fit,” she said. This kind of down-leveling can happen at Amazon, in part, because of the company’s hiring process. Interviews are conducted not only by recruiters and hiring managers, but also by soon-to-be peers of the candidate and at least one person outside of the immediate team, called a “bar raiser.” Amazon told Recode these bar raisers are trained, in part, to identify potential bias during the interview process. A single interviewer taking part in what Amazon calls the hiring “loop” can essentially vote against hiring a candidate, or can recommend that a candidate get down-leveled. Candidates are not told why they are being slotted at a certain level, or one lower than the one they were first told. Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, would not confirm or deny Kelly-Rae’s specific claim. She acknowledged that it’s common for candidates to be down-leveled during interview processes, but said this is something that happens to employees from all backgrounds, and that candidates are sometimes even up-leveled. Kelly-Rae said two AWS VPs, including a hiring manager, later acknowledged that she should have been brought on at a higher level, but they hadn’t rectified the mistake by the time she left. Amazon judges its version of “culture fit” by evaluating job candidates, and existing employees during performance reviews, on some of the company’s 14 leadership principles. Several former Black employees pointed to these principles as possible tools for discrimination, and said they could provide cover for some managers to use them against Black employees. The most problematic leadership principle according to these former employees is “Earns Trust,” which reads in full: “Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.” “If you talk to people across Amazon, they’ll say that if the company ever wants to weaponize a leadership principle, the one they go to often is Earns Trust,” Kelly-Rae said. “What does it mean? It’s a catchall. It means nothing so it can mean everything. Someone can say it if they don’t think you are a team player. They can say it if they don’t believe you’ll fall in line. They can say it if they believe you’re someone who pushes back too much. And they can say it if you are someone who doesn’t push back enough. They don’t have to quantify it or qualify it.” Three other former Black Amazon employees interviewed by Recode said the Earns Trust leadership principle was used as reasoning to try to push them, or Black colleagues at the company, out. A Black former Amazon employee told Recode that a director once told them and other Black employees in a candid conversation about the downsides of the company’s values system that “the one they use against Black women specifically was Earns Trust.” After hearing this, this employee said they started pushing back on Earns Trust in hiring and feedback processes because they realized it was “used as a scapegoat. Because no one really dives deep into what that leadership principle means, no one questions it.” Only 15.3 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS in 2019 compared to 22 percent of white employees Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, said when the leadership principles were last revised, in 2015, the S-team evaluated the values to ensure that the importance of diversity and inclusion was incorporated. She pointed to the “Are Right, A Lot,” principle, which says that “leaders are right a lot” but also “seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” Some Amazon employees lobbied management this year for the addition of a 15th Leadership Principle that explicitly relates to the idea of inclusion. “Many of us strongly feel the need to explicitly define inclusion in the Amazon Leadership Principles,” a group of Amazon employees wrote in an internal 12-page document featuring anecdotes of racism and gender discrimination inside the company, according to Business Insider. Amazon leadership has not adopted it. Kelly-Rae’s personal experiences, as well as what she observed around her as a diversity leader, convinced her that she shouldn’t just quietly leave Amazon. “Sometimes you need people willing to be brave to say there’s a lot of stuff that is wrong that needs to be looked at critically in order to be fixed,” Kelly-Rae said. “I am willing to put my neck out and to put skin in the game, because if leaders in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s didn’t do it, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. I am putting my neck out so that in five years or 10 years or 20 years, someone will look back and say, ‘I’m glad that somebody put their neck out to effect meaningful change so that we can continue to move forward as a society one organization at a time.’” Promotions? Good luck. The level that an employee is slotted into when they join Amazon wouldn’t be such a big deal for these employees if getting a promotion wasn’t such an ordeal. But Amazon is notorious in the tech industry as a difficult place to get a promotion for people from all backgrounds. And diversity and inclusion experts who’ve worked at Amazon said this already steep challenge is even harder for Black, Latinx, and Native American (BLNA) employees. They told Recode that internal data shows promotion rates are lower for Black employees, as well as Latino and Native American employees, when compared to employees of other races at the company, such as whites and Asians. For this reason, the current diversity manager who spoke to Recode tells Black friends who apply to Amazon that they should not accept any employment level at the company where they won’t be happy remaining “for the long run.” Amazon performance reviews also seem to show signs of bias, according to internal data viewed by Recode. In AWS, for example, 12.7 percent of Black employees received the lowest rating — dubbed “least effective” — in annual performance reviews for 2018, compared to just 6.6 percent of white employees. The overall internal goal for this tier is 5 percent of employees. Similarly, only 14.5 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS that year, compared to 21.8 percent of white employees. Amazon’s internal target for this tier is 20 percent. Performance ratings for 2019 also showed disparities, though slightly smaller. Around 10.2 percent of Black AWS employees received a “least effective” designation, compared to 6.2 percent of white employees. Meanwhile, 15.3 percent of Black AWS employees received the highest performance rating in 2019, compared to about 22 percent of white workers. Recode also viewed partial data for 2020 that suggests the gap is slowly shrinking but that disparities along racial lines remain. Amazon disputed all of this data but declined to provide alternate information. “It is not uncommon for women, and especially Black women, to have a role advertised at one level but extended an offer at a position that is lower” An Amazon diversity manager also stressed that the company-wide disparities in ratings according to race might be even worse if not for a practice in which higher-ups at Amazon sometimes instruct lower-level managers to reevaluate grades if the racial or gender disparities in annual reviews for a given department are too great. Of the performance review disparities, this diversity manager said: “That affects your eligibility for promotion, your income, and, in my opinion, just your well-being. The challenge is when we push back and say, ‘Hey, this shouldn’t be the case; the curves should be equitable on racial and gender lines,’ the feedback is always the exact same thing: ‘Perhaps they don’t meet the bar.’” The idea of “meeting the bar” also comes up in conversations related to recruiting new employees out of historically Black colleges and universities, according to this manager. Amazon has in recent years put more effort into recruiting from HBCUs and last year created a two-semester entertainment industry program in Los Angeles in partnership with Howard University. But it is not uncommon for business managers at Amazon to question the idea of hiring for corporate roles from HBCUs that are not as well-known as Howard University or Spelman College. A common rhetorical question from managers, according to this internal source: “Do these universities meet the bar?” The diversity manager said that this kind of blanket skepticism of an entire institution was unique to HBCUs below the very top tier, and not expressed for lesser-known universities that aren’t HBCUs. Anderson, the company spokesperson, argued that this type of anecdote is not representative of Amazon’s relationship with HBCUs, and noted that Amazon hosted its first annual career event for more than 200 HBCU students from dozens of colleges in early 2020. The diversity manager disagrees: “In my opinion, it’s coded language to say these students are not the caliber of students we go after.” One current Amazon employee, who is a Black woman, shared an experience with Recode that fits into this pattern. She told Recode she believes race played a role in her inability to get a promotion. Although she was on a promotion track, when she got a new white male boss, she said he repeatedly moved the goalposts on what she needed to earn the promotion. After pushing back again and again, she ultimately transferred to another team, where she still works. Looking back, she believes he was taken aback that she fought for herself and didn’t back down. “I don’t think that these people ever thought I would push it as far as I did,” she said. “They didn’t think that — no offense — a little Black girl was going to do shit. Historically speaking, white men especially felt that with people of color, ‘I own your body, mind, labor, and output, and how dare you challenge me on this.’ The fact that I was vocal when there were problems and I made waves because things weren’t right — this person didn’t like that I challenged him.” She has since found a new team and manager that she enjoys working with, and hopes that continuing to speak up internally will help spur some positive change at Amazon. At the same time, she believes that talking about her experiences publicly can also help pressure the company to make positive changes. “I have been at Amazon long enough to actually see change happen because of articles being reported,” she added. Eyes wide open Several of the Black current and former employees who spoke to Recode said that when they decided to join Amazon, they knew it had a reputation for a cutthroat culture — regardless of race — and that the tech giant, like its Big Tech counterparts, had shortcomings when it came to hiring Black employees and managers into corporate roles and then retaining that talent. But considering the pay, the type of work they would do, and the boost Amazon would bring to their résumés, they felt the opportunity would be worth it. But some say the discrimination they encountered at Amazon was worse than they could have imagined. They said it took a toll on them both at work and at home, negatively impacting their health and personal relationships. Their troubling experiences are varied, but many share common themes. One Amazon employee who is a Black woman says she has heard two white colleagues proclaim that they do not believe in corporate diversity efforts. Two Black women said coworkers touched their hair without asking. Three Black women told Recode that either coworkers or managers have told them at various times to smile more or be more friendly. And several Black women told Recode that they’ve had to deal with white colleagues and managers stealing credit for their work. Dee Dwyer for Vox Many former employees spoke to Recode on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I think the ‘accomplishment’ of getting a corporate role at Amazon — the best-paying role of my life — and the opportunity to do something at a scale I never imagined, ended up with pain and trauma I could not have anticipated,” a Black female PhD who worked at Amazon for several years told Recode. “I’ve never felt more used and disposable in my life,” she added. Another Black female Amazon employee detailed interactions with a white manager, on DiscoTech, a website created last fall for employees to anonymously share stories about discrimination they’ve encountered working inside large US tech companies. “He would say ‘You know I’m a good guy right? My ancestors owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves,’” the anecdote on DiscoTech reads. “Seeing as how he’s a manager and I’m an individual contributor, I wondered if he saw me as a slave. I asked him ‘What is it about me that makes you feel comfortable saying these things to me?’ His reply, ‘because you look safe and smart.’ As a lighter skinned black woman, I felt he shared this because his default perception of black people is that we are ‘dangerous and not smart.’” The anecdote continued: “He then goes on to tell me, ‘I have a friend who is black as night but I don’t care if you’re purple or polka dot; I don’t see color.’ I confronted him about his offensive comments and he apologized. He had to go to mandated D&I training. The company didn’t acknowledge the totality of his comments and cherry picked the one they would address him about.” A person familiar with the incidents confirmed them to Recode last year. In a statement, the company said: Amazon works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one of our 950,000+ employees, and these anecdotes do not reflect our values. We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in the workplace and investigate all claims reported by employees to Amazon Human Resources or through our anonymous Ethics Hotline. “There is no quick fix” The employees who’ve stayed at Amazon are sticking it out for now and looking for any signs of positive change. One bright spot was the appointment of Boler Davis, the global warehouse chief, to the S-team in August. Others are also holding out hope that Jassy, Bezos’s successor, will play a direct role in pushing diversity and inclusion initiatives forward at the company. While many of the sources who spoke to Recode told stories of discrimination inside of AWS, several said they believe Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company, based on notes he’s sent to employees over the last year and his role as executive sponsor of company’s Black Employee Network affinity group, which has 34 internal chapters in various US cities and countries around the globe. But they were skeptical that one person, even the CEO, could turn the ship completely in the right direction. In 2020, Amazon began requiring all employees to take diversity and inclusion training, and signed up as a launch employer for a third-party racial equity evaluation called the Management Leadership of Tomorrow’s Black Equity at Work Certification. Amazon also held a virtual “career enrichment” summit called Represent the Future that was attended by 5,000 Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals interested in learning about working at Amazon. Well-deserved recognition for a terrific leader. We have a lot of work to do, Angelina, but committed to working with you & the entire Amazon Black Employee Network (BEN) to make meaningful change. https://t.co/xAYd6dRlEQ— Andy Jassy (@ajassy) December 4, 2020 Some employees also hope Amazon’s goal of doubling the number of Black VPs and directors leads to more promotions and hiring of lower-level Black employees. But Kelly-Rae, the former AWS diversity manager, said that although those goals sound great, they have significant limitations. One of the biggest issues, according to her, is that there are not S-team leaders whose compensation or job security is tied to building a more diverse and inclusive company. (Starbucks, for example, announced in October that the compensation of top company executives would be affected by diversity and inclusion successes or failures.) The Amazon spokesperson said that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year, a majority of the leaders in this exclusive group started meeting every two weeks with HR and D&I leaders to evaluate diversity goals and new investment opportunities, while discussing how to remove roadblocks to progress. Another former Amazon diversity and inclusion employee said they’re bothered that the goal of “doubling” Black representation has become a boasting point for some at Amazon. They said they heard an AWS business leader brag about how the goals would be perceived externally, saying that “No other company can say that they’re doubling their number of Black VPs.” We're at @Code2040 as part of our #WIRED25 festival. Mimi Fox Melton, Senior Director of Community Mobilization, says that according to research by the Kapor Center, on average people of color leave the tech industry within 3 years of entering. pic.twitter.com/dNTGIQ4lFT— WIRED (@WIRED) October 12, 2018 “I think that tying executive compensation to any sort of goal is effective,” said Mimi Fox Melton, the acting CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit focused on racial equity in the tech industry. “And certainly at Code2040, what we’ve found is that efforts at a company where the C-suite has not bought into the importance ... of racial equity, fail — period.” Fox Melton added that the goals need to be tied to metrics that go deeper than mere hiring or retaining numbers, and should track “the material experience of those people at work and whether or not those people are experiencing cultures that help us contribute to the fullness of our capacity.” New research from McKinsey found that only 23 percent of Black employees across the US private sector believe that they receive “a lot” or “quite a bit” of support from their respective employers to advance their careers. If Amazon took steps like tying leadership compensation to such goals, or stood out as a leader in the space in other ways, it would be sending a message internally, but also in the broader tech industry. “If a big company, in particular, really dedicated itself and put its weight behind diversity and, more specifically, racial equity, it would send shockwaves throughout the tech industry,” Fox Melton said. “Hopefully they would share their successes and failures and really pave the path that others follow.” “One of the biggest challenges for companies is that there is no quick fix,” she added. “It’s not going away with three or four years of minimal effort.” Several of the Black employees who spoke to Recode acknowledged that Amazon isn’t alone among the tech giants when it comes to diversity issues and accusations of internal racial discrimination. Current and former employees of tech giants, including Google and Facebook, have made such claims in the past year. But they believe that should only raise the bar for Amazon to be a leader in this work, and take actions that back up its words. “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” Amazon wrote in a blog post last year. “Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” Kelly-Rae believes Amazon can be a model for other tech giants because it is already a proven leader in industries as varied as online retail, cloud computing, and video streaming. “Tech is collectively looking for a solution, and if one of them presents the solution, others will follow,” she said. But to accomplish this, “what is required is a robust strategy where there is accountability at every level,” she told Recode. Meron Menghistab for Vox “Sometimes you need people willing to be brave to say there’s a lot of stuff that is wrong that needs to be looked at critically in order to be fixed.” —Chanin Kelly-Rae Kelly-Rae said she worked with many colleagues who were striving to make Amazon a more inclusive and equitable company for all people, no matter their race or gender. But she fears little progress will be made if the company’s top leadership team doesn’t do more. “I think they believe that diversity and inclusion is just recruiting and training,” she said. “I think they think that’s all that it is. I sent an email to Jeff Bezos, and copied Andy Jassy, that said, ‘You don’t respect the discipline of diversity management or you don’t understand it.’” Company-wide goals that the S-team sets carry a lot of weight, and new ones related to race may have a positive impact on the experiences of Black Amazonians. But Kelly-Rae said from her career-long experience, Amazon cannot transform into a company with a level playing field for all employees if the top leadership team does not include an executive with expertise in the field. “If HR is important, they have an executive on the S-team,” Kelly-Rae said. “If infrastructure is important to Amazon, they have representation on the S-team. And more importantly, they make data-informed decisions and there’s a senior person having to produce based on data.” “People track things,” she added, “that matter to them.”

Read More...
posted 2 days ago on re/code
Twitter “Super Follows” feature was announced at an investor event. | Screenshot for Twitter’s Analyst Day Presentation Twitter, a notoriously public platform, is building a walled garden. Twitter thinks your tweets — or at least some of them — might actually be worth something. At a virtual event for investors Thursday, the company announced that it’s planning to debut a pay-for-posts feature, called Super Follows, in which users will be able to pay the people they follow for their best tweets. With Super Follows, Twitter will allow users to make money from content that they make exclusive to particular followers. Sample screenshots released by the company show that the payment scheme could take multiple forms. For instance, a follower could pay a creator they follow on Twitter a few dollars a month to access that user’s exclusive newsletter or to see special tweets only available to Super Followers. They might also be able to join a particular group or access a badge that shows they support that creator. The idea that you would pay someone for their tweets might sound far-fetched, but a Twitter spokesperson told Recode that the goal is “rethinking the incentives of our service.” Basically, the premise seems to be that this pay-for-post feature will help build more specific communities around specific topics. Another change coming to Twitter: a group-like tool called Communities. We don’t know much about this yet-to-arrive feature — Twitter says more information is coming later this year — but the idea seems to be a more private and more controlled way for communities to get together on Twitter outside the public view. “[I]t still can be hard to find and connect directly with people who share your interests in focused conversations,” a company spokesperson told Recode. “This year, we’re making it easier for you to discover, participate, and form conversations with communities that share your interests.” Twitter’s new Community feature was announced at a virtual investor event on Thursday. Neither of Twitter’s newly announced features is currently available, but the company says it will reveal more information in the coming months. Still, Thursday’s announcement is a sign that Twitter wants to be more than an incredibly public online discussion space and that the company is leaning into the smaller “micro-communities” that organically form on its platform. After all, someone might jump on Twitter to see the latest in global news, but someone’s also on the site because they’re following a particular set of users and influencers, whether they’re posting about Tesla or Taylor Swift. The arrival of Super Follows and Communities comes as Twitter has moved to mimic closed-off features available on other platforms. At the end of last year, Twitter launched “Fleets,” Snapchat-like stories that disappear and are only available to followers. The company’s also in the midst of expanding its new Spaces tool, small audio-based rooms that function much like the new app Clubhouse. And, following in the footsteps of services like Substack, Twitter earlier this year purchased the email newsletter service Revue and is working on integrating subscription-based newsletters directly through their public Twitter accounts. Twitter’s recent moves also indicate the site hopes to add more layers to its historically public platform. All signs indicate that at the end of 2021, a user with a particularly promising tweet will have much more control over the audience that gets to read it, from being able to charge people for that content to sharing the post in a more private Community to even posting it in an ephemeral Fleet. The move to more closed-off content means Twitter will also encounter more challenges, like the proliferation of misinformation and noxious (or even dangerous) content that can foment in private online spaces. (After Fleets debuted, some pointed out that the closed and short-lived nature of the content could make it easier to spread misinformation.) It’s also not clear how adding more payment-based components will impact the famously free platform. In the meantime, if you’ve got a perfect post in mind, Thursday’s announcement indicates it may be worth holding onto it a little bit longer. The reward could be more fruitful than just “Likes” and retweets. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 4 days ago on re/code
Progressives are enraged with Facebook and trying to fight back. | Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images It’s called the Project for Good Information, and it raises big questions about the future of the information wars. A prominent Democratic strategist is planning a new $65 million effort to push progressive local news around the United States as part of an attempt to match the dominance of right-wing media, Recode has learned. The organization, whose formation hasn’t previously been reported, is called the Project for Good Information (PGI). It’s being created by Tara McGowan, a Democratic strategist who has spent the last few years at her current organization, Acronym, trying to encourage her party to counter far-right media with liberal content. She has fans among influential Democrats and donors but has also attracted controversy from journalism groups concerned that her advocacy efforts masquerade as unbiased media, as well as from some fellow Democrats who worry that she can push the envelope too far. McGowan’s new group makes clear, though, that some progressives are prepared to double down on her strategy. Her allies say she is one of the few Democrats willing to fight fire with fire. But PGI wants to “restore social trust” in media, and its critics argue ideological outlets only erode that even further and make the information wars even messier. This time, however, McGowan is attempting to strip away the partisan ties that have dogged her previous journalism plays, including Courier Newsroom, which her new organization will back. The idea, according to people familiar with the new structure, is to continue creating a media ecosystem without the linkages between those outlets and a political organization like Acronym, Courier’s current backer. A lingering challenge, though, will be how to position the outlets as nonpartisan given McGowan’s background. “Traditional media is failing. Disinformation is flourishing. It’s time for a new kind of media,” reads the bold, all-caps text at the beginning of a two-page marketing memo for PGI obtained by Recode. “Recognizing that successful investment in good information online requires trust that must exist outside of politics or partisanship,” the document reads after recalling McGowan’s work at Acronym, “PGI is an evolution of those efforts to tackle the deeper structural issues that contributed to Trump’s election and will outlast him in defeat.” McGowan declined to comment. The new push will consist of two entities, according to the document: A 501(c)(3) public foundation called the Good Information Project, which will grant money to nonprofit media companies, and a public benefit corporation (a so-called B Corp) called Good Information Inc., which will invest in for-profit media companies. Corporate records in Washington, DC, show that a top Democratic attorney previously involved with McGowan’s political work incorporated the Good Information Project in early February. McGowan is attempting to raise $65 million for the effort this year, with $35 million for the investment arm, $25 million for the foundation, and the remaining $5 million for a two-year operating budget, Recode has learned. Acronym and its affiliated groups have previously had success raising money from leading Democratic donors in Silicon Valley, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist Mike Moritz. Former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who has his own ties to the Silicon Valley donor world, also advises Acronym. McGowan has been a controversial figure in Democratic politics ever since news emerged of the link between Acronym and Shadow, the startup responsible for bungling the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucuses. McGowan’s new effort is sure to raise a new round of big-picture questions about the future of Democratic media — and what rules of the road progressives should heed in the post-Trump era. “PGI is building a new media ecosystem to meet the urgency of this moment. By incubating, investing in and scaling ideas that not only serve the public good, but that drive innovation in content distribution and business models, PGI is building a portfolio of media properties to radically and rapidly improve the way our society values, consumes, and exchanges information on the internet,” the marketing memo reads. In the run-up to the 2020 election, Acronym also planned to invest $25 million in a progressive news effort called Courier Newsroom, which set up eight different websites with seemingly nonpartisan, homespun names like “UpNorth News” in Wisconsin and “Keystone” in Pennsylvania. The publications routinely featured Democratic candidates in favorable lights, and Courier spent millions to promote the articles in Facebook ads. While Courier websites do note that they are heavily backed by the progressive organization, critics felt the disclosures were insufficient and that the newsrooms functioned more like an arm of the Democratic Party than a traditional publication, further muddying the waters for consumers seeking unbiased information. Acronym has said Courier is “factual and transparently progressive.” McGowan and her defenders have said that Democrats have ceded this information warfare to the likes of Sean Hannity and Breitbart for too long. If partisan news is going to exist, the thinking goes, Democrats should offer their own instead of depending on nonpartisan media outlets to try to counter the right’s disinformation machine. McGowan has been a particularly harsh critic of Facebook, which she argues has been too soft on conservative media while cracking down on progressive outlets like Courier. Courier, which now has about 70 people on its editorial staff, is expected to grow thanks to an investment from PGI’s B corporation. It is unclear whether Acronym will sell its ownership stake in Courier to the new group, or what its future holds in a broader sense. “PGI’s first investment in this arena will be to help scale Courier Newsroom, a network of 8 local online properties that reach subgroups of Americans most vulnerable to disinformation with local, values-driven news and content developed specifically for their social newsfeeds, mobile apps and email inboxes,” the PGI document reads. McGowan has acknowledged that the criticisms about the previous structure — in which Acronym largely (though not completely) owned Courier — were “fair,” and that a new, nonpartisan structure was needed to protect Courier’s journalists from accusations of political bias. The document refers to McGowan as “a former campaign strategist.” “In order for Courier to be really successful, it is very important that over time it is not affiliated with a political organization or entity. We haven’t made any decisions related to that yet, but I think that there is a lot of fair criticism that we are reflecting on and thinking about,” McGowan said in an interview with Fast Company published in December. “We need new business models,” McGowan said with regard to what a revamp of Courier would look like. Now she’s trying to raise $65 million to make that happen in the Wild West that is today’s modern media.

Read More...
posted 4 days ago on re/code
Your app may be sending location data to a company that sells your data to another company that sells your data to the government. | Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images Google can’t stop trackers in its apps from selling location data to the government. Maybe the government can. If you’re relying on Apple’s and Google’s app store rules to keep your location data safe from companies that sell it to the government, you might want to rethink that policy. But if you’re relying on the legal system to stop government agencies from buying that data, you might be in luck — maybe. A new Treasury Department inspector general report says that it doesn’t believe agencies have the legal right to buy location data from commercial services without obtaining a warrant. The watchdog had been investigating the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for doing just that, but the IRS isn’t the only agency that buys location data on the open market. The military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) do it, too. Agencies have said that they aren’t doing anything illegal since they’re simply buying commercially available data supplied by users who consented for that data to be collected. This new report casts doubt on that claim, saying a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that required law enforcement to get a warrant for cellphone tower data could be applied to location data, too. If the inspector general is correct, this could put a stop to the government purchase of location data that is procured through a series of intermediaries, a supply chain that is very difficult to follow and therefore difficult to stop. App stores have tried to take action, but their bans can be leaky and incomplete. Google recently banned one tracker from apps in its app store, but researchers have repeatedly found apps that still contain it. And, with an entire industry dedicated to harvesting and selling location data, even a complete ban of one tracker won’t make much of a dent. The legal gray area that “data laundering” exploits — and that Google won’t stop The source of that data is your mobile phone. More specifically, it’s the apps you put on it, which may send location data back to third-party companies that specialize in selling location data, or access to it, to advertisers, marketers, and data brokers — even other location data providers. It may go through several companies before it reaches its end user. The location data supply chain is intentionally opaque, but eventually your data (and that of millions of others) may wind up in the hands of whatever law enforcement body is willing to pay for it. Sean O’Brien, principal researcher of ExpressVPN’s Digital Security Lab, has a term for this: data laundering. “There are so many actors sharing and selling data that it’s incredibly difficult to chase the trail,” O’Brien told Recode. Last November, Vice managed to chase one trail, reporting that a location data company called X-Mode was selling the data obtained through its software development kit (SDK), which is in hundreds of apps with millions of users, to defense contractors. Those contractors then sold that data to the military. (Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) had been on a parallel quest to investigate data brokers, and reached a similar conclusion around the same time.) Following that report, Apple and Google banned X-Mode’s SDK from their app stores. But months later, researchers are still finding that SDK in apps with thousands of users. O’Brien’s Digital Security Lab, along with Defense Lab Agency co-founder Esther Onfroy, looked at 450 Android apps and found X-Mode’s SDK in nearly 200 of them, some of which were sending data to X-Mode even after the ban. Google removed at least one of those apps after being informed it had slipped through the company’s net. Then ExpressVPN found 25 more apps with the SDK, most from a developer called CityMaps2Go. Google removed those apps from the store, admitting that they got through its screening process due to an “oversight in our enforcement process.” ExpressVPN told Recode that it then found 22 more apps with the X-Mode SDK in the Google Play Store, all of which were developed by CityMaps2Go, indicating that Google’s enforcement process needs some work. Worth noting: Some of these are paid apps, which should dispel the myth that paying for an app guarantees your privacy. Despite knowing that some of CityMaps2Go’s apps had the banned SDK, Google didn’t check its others. When Recode told Google about the oversight, the company removed the apps from the store. What’s going on here? The company behind CityMaps2Go, Ulmon, was acquired by another company, Kulemba, last year. Kulemba told Recode that it’s having trouble accessing the code to remove the SDKs from Android apps. That leaves it up to Google to find and remove apps that break its rules, and the consumer just has to hope that it does. With nearly 50 apps slipping through the cracks so far, that hope might be misplaced. O’Brien thinks Google can do better. “Researchers outside of Google can identify the presence of these banned SDKs without the benefit of owning and operating Google Play,” O’Brien said. “We looked at apps by developers with known links to X-Mode and discovered the offending SDK using well-known methods. Consumers should reasonably expect that Google, or the steward of any app store, protects users from SDKs that have been banned — or there’s a serious disconnect between policy and practice.” But there’s another, bigger issue here than one company’s SDK and Google’s apparent difficulties enforcing its own rules. X-Mode isn’t the only company that provides location data to government agencies, and it’s not the only company the government is buying it from. Whack-a-mole app store bans will not be enough to stop the massive, opaque, and labyrinthine location data industry that is worth billions. “Location data brokers use many ways to source data from apps,” Wolfie Christl, a researcher who investigates the data industry, told Recode. “They can make apps embed their data collection code, harvest it from the bidstream in digital advertising, source it directly from app vendors, or just buy it from other data brokers.” X-Mode did not respond to request for comment on if and how it is still obtaining and using location data, but even if it is well and truly cut off, we already know there are other companies selling location data to the government: specifically, Babel Street and Venntel. Finding their primary data sources is difficult — the data laundering, again — but recent reports linked Venntel to two SDKs, which sent data to Venntel through a series of intermediaries, including its parent company Gravy Analytics. One of those SDKs, from a company called Predicio, was banned from Google’s Play Store in early February. We’ll see if Google is able to enforce the Predicio ban better than it did X-Mode’s. “The mobile app economy became a cesspool of data exploitation,” Christl told Recode. “The only way to fix this is to finally enforce data protection law in the EU, and to introduce strong legislation in the US and in other regions.” If Google can’t stop location data brokers, maybe a new law can We might have some legislation soon. Wyden, who requested the IRS inspector general’s report in the first place as part of his investigation into the location data industry and government agencies’ use of it, told Recode that he intends to introduce a bill that will forbid law enforcement from purchasing location data. “Americans need stronger protections for our rights than app stores playing whack-a-mole with shady data brokers,” Wyden told Recode. “Congress needs to close the loopholes that let middlemen sell our personal data to the government, and put it into black-letter law, along with a strong consumer privacy law to make it harder to assemble the massive databases of where we go, and what we read and buy online, and put users back in control of our information.” “That’s why I will introduce the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act in the coming weeks, to make the government get a warrant for personal information, instead of just pulling out a credit card,” he said. There’s also a chance, as the inspector general report said, that location data purchases will be found by the courts to violate the Fourth Amendment, which will solve that part of the problem for us. Either way, this only addresses one category of location data customers. As Wyden said, consumer privacy laws are also needed. Until (and if) we get those, we have to rely on companies to regulate themselves and trust that they’re doing it. If one of the biggest companies in the world can’t rid its own app store of just one SDK that violates its terms of service, how can we expect it to find and remove the others? When location data companies filter their data sales through multiple intermediaries, how are Google and Apple supposed to know who is breaking their rules in the first place? “Regulation and legal action can have a positive effect, but I always look for more grassroots solutions,” O’Brien said. “Consumers need to think differently about their relationship with smartphones, social networks, and tech in general.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 4 days ago on re/code
A view of the Google building in Dublin, Ireland. | Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images The story of Toolbar, Chrome, and Android — three attempts by Google to survive in a rapidly changing world. Today it might seem that Google’s power and success were inevitable — thanks to Larry Page and Sergey Brin cracking the search code — but the reality is quite different. Google was born in a state of war in the early 2000s, subject to the whims of Microsoft, a tech goliath whose Internet Explorer browser was on 90 percent of all computers at the time and essentially controlled most people’s access to Google’s search engine. And even though Google won that battle, it’s faced new ones ever since. In the second episode of Land of the Giants: The Google Empire — our new seven-part podcast about the company’s ascent to a global behemoth — we examine how Google, which is currently being sued by the Department of Justice and several state attorneys general over antitrust issues, has had to fight for survival throughout its existence. Google reached its current heights only by adopting a survivalist mentality — first clawing its way to sustained relevance, and then eventually to dominance in areas like search and mobile operating systems. The company’s early fear of failure still seems visible in many of its current decisions, such as when it pays competitors (like Apple) to make it their operating system’s default search engine, or when it fills its search results with its own products. Google’s survivalist story begins at a time when Internet Explorer reigned supreme and Microsoft could have easily displaced Google as its browser’s default search option. Back then, you didn’t type search queries in your browser’s address bar. To search with Google, you’d either type www.google.com in the address bar or hit the browser’s “search” button (which took you to Google’s webpage). Microsoft, if it so desired, could build its own search engine and make that the default, or it could enable search in the address bar with something other than Google. If Microsoft had done something like that, it likely would have been the end of Google. So Google knew it needed a workaround. That workaround was Google’s Toolbar, a browser extension that added a Google search bar right under the browser’s address bar. A few years after Google released it, hundreds of millions of people were using Toolbar, thanks largely to Google signing distribution deals with companies like Adobe to put it in their install packages, and also its ease of use. Google, for a moment, felt like it solved its problem. But as Google started developing other web-based programs that would become core products, like Gmail, Docs, and Calendar, the notion of allowing another company — especially a competitor like Microsoft — to control people’s experience of the web made Google uneasy. Google saw Microsoft developing its own search engine, first called Live Search and then called Bing, and decided it could not rely on its Toolbar alone to encourage people to use Google search over competitors. The company needed its own browser. That’s what led it to create Chrome. Google Chrome took off because it was fast, simple, and easy to use, and also because Google used similar distribution deals from Toolbar to push it out to the masses. But while Chrome was a smashing success — it’s now the dominant desktop browser in the world — it provided only momentary relief. Because just as Chrome established itself on desktop, the mobile revolution took off, leaving Google exposed yet again in a new area. Google didn’t want another company — whether it was Microsoft or Apple — controlling how people accessed the web and its products from their phones and other handheld devices. It also knew it would benefit from some sort of standardization of the mobile web. And that became the foundation for Android, the mobile operating system it acquired in 2005 and developed inside its company. Today, Android powers almost 85 percent of the world’s phones, meaning Google is the pathway to the web for most people, not simply a website where you go to find stuff. Without Android and Chrome, Google, “would have been relegated to probably irrelevance,” Brian Rakowski, a Google VP of product management who works on both Chrome and Google’s mobile efforts told us. “We probably would have been either stamped out or a very, very tiny, probably becoming irrelevant company if we weren’t able to.” All these battles got Google, once a scrappy startup trying to not get crushed by Microsoft, to where it is today — at the top of the tech world, but also facing allegations that it’s grown too big and is illegally stifling competition. For more stories about Google’s incredible rise, covering everything from the mobile phone wars to the company’s internal tensions to its current antitrust battles, subscribe now to Land of the Giants: The Google Empire. And please tell us what you think: We’re on Twitter at @kantrowitz and @shiringhaffary.

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on re/code
Joe Rogan in 2013. | Vivian Zink/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images The service is paying big money to big stars. But people who aren’t famous — maybe even you, the person reading this — might want to upload some stuff, too. Spotify started out as a legal way to stream popular music. Then it flirted, unsuccessfully, with becoming a video company, too. Now it is trying out a new identity: It wants normal people, not just people you’ve heard of, to start uploading songs and podcasts — and then it wants to make money getting those songs and podcasts out to many, many more people. Spotify still wants the biggest stars in the world on its service. That’s why it spends most of its money on licensing deals with the big music labels, and why it paid a ton of money to sign podcast king Joe Rogan last summer. And it’s also why it is working with Barack Obama; the service just announced that Bruce Springsteen and the former president have a new Spotify podcast where they discuss “modern manhood.” But the main message behind a promotional event Spotify held Monday, where the company announced a slew of new products and several new podcasts, was aimed at a much larger group of musicians and podcasters who will never be Obama-level famous, or even a little bit famous: Spotify wants all of them uploading their content to Spotify. Spotify thinks it can make money by distributing that stuff to hundreds of millions of people through a combination of advertising and subscription dollars. In theory, some of that may come back to the people who made the stuff in the first place. After the event, I spoke with Spotify’s content boss Dawn Ostroff, a veteran of the magazine and TV business, about Spotify’s big-picture ambitions and how it is navigating the change from being a content distributor to a content owner. And, specifically, how it’s responding to the challenges that come with being Joe Rogan’s employer. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation: Peter Kafka Who is this event aimed at? It seemed reminiscent of all the streaming video launch events companies like Apple and HBO and Disney have done over the last year or so — kind of aimed at investors, but also for consumers. Dawn Ostroff Actually, we’re trying to reach creators. For us, it was about being able to show where we’ve come from and where we’re planning on going for creators. When you think back to what Daniel [Ek]’s mission and vision was early on for Spotify, it was how do we connect millions of artists and creators with billions of users. This was explaining that we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go, and where we are in the journey. And also being able to communicate to creators the different tools, the different products that we have, to help and support them in our journey in terms of not only creation, but monetization, and of course reach. Peter Kafka There has been a long-running discussion with Spotify and creators/artists, back to its earliest days, where artists were complaining that they weren’t getting value out of Spotify but Spotify was getting value out of them. How much of that discussion informed what you’re doing today — both the way you talk to artists and what you’re doing for them? Dawn Ostroff Well, we have deals with the labels. That’s been pretty transparent: People know what we pay out, out of our revenue, to the artists and their labels. But I think really part of what Spotify is about is democratizing a form of distribution for artists in order for them to be able to experiment, create, and hopefully grow. Because there’s a lot of room for artists who aren’t necessarily the top artists in the world. And similarly for podcasters, there’s a lot of room for people who are interested in having podcasts, that aren’t the top podcasters in the world. And the idea that you’re able to globalize the platform in a way that music is crossing over all boundaries and borders, and similarly, we’re seeing that with podcasts — it’s really unifying the world. You don’t have to look any further than the performance of all the major record labels. The music catalogs are going for record amounts. There are hundreds of artists now earning millions of dollars from Spotify alone. And that’s part of what we wanted to be able to illustrate today. Peter Kafka One thing that’s changed since Spotify’s start is the way that consumers and certainly regulators view big tech platforms. They generally had favorable feelings about them, and now there’s a lot more suspicion of them. You have your own complaint about Apple — you say it has too much power. But it strikes me that in audio, Spotify has so much power that there is likely to be even more suspicion about its motives, and what happens when you give Spotify your data or your livelihood. Dawn Ostroff To start off with, compared to Google, Amazon, or Apple, we’re still very small. We’re not in that league. But we’re incredibly focused on audio. And there should be competition for the tech giants. And that’s what we are. We’re competition for them in this one area. Peter Kafka Since we’re talking about the giants: For years, Apple didn’t seem interested in making a business out of podcasting. It seems to have woken up — I guess because of Spotify — and now seems to have some plans to invest in podcasting and to offer a paid podcast service. What do you think of Apple starting to compete with you in podcasting? Dawn Ostroff I can’t comment on their plans. And quite honestly, I have no sense of what their plans are. But we think any company that’s spending money on the audio space is smart. We think the audio industry is still growing — we’ve seen an explosion, but we don’t think we’re anywhere near plateauing yet. Peter Kafka You’ve spent nearly $1 billion on podcast startups and content. When Spotify first started buying podcast assets, you said you might spend $500 million in your first year. Do you think you’re going to continue spending at this clip? Dawn Ostroff Our goal is to continue to grow. I can’t comment on the exact figure. But we’re pursuing it because it’s working. Peter Kafka When Spotify signed Joe Rogan, people like me wondered what would happen when Joe Rogan offends someone, and that has happened. And it turns out some of the people work at Spotify. What kind of discussions did you have about whatever kind of blowback Rogan was going to generate? And did those discussions include what would happen if your own employees are upset? Dawn Ostroff In terms of Joe: He’s been held to the same policies that everyone else at our platform has to adhere to. And for us, it’s about having a diverse voice of people, for a global audience — a wide and varied group of people who listen to Spotify. And he happens to remain wildly popular. I can’t comment on our internal discussions, but debate is also a big part of Spotify’s internal corporate culture. And it happens not just with something like Joe Rogan but it happens with different areas of our business. It’s nothing new for us.

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on re/code
An activist dressed as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Belgium, which also has a few fans in favor of government regulations on Big Tech. | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images The social media giant cut millions of Australians off from the news to protest a potential law with a lot of flaws. Facebook’s sudden move on Wednesday to cut Australians off from the news (and the rest of the world from Australian news) was as surprising as it was draconian. It blocked Australians from sharing any news links, Australian news publications from hosting their content on the platform, and the rest of us from sharing links to Australian news sites. It also may be a preview of how the platform will respond to the almost certain future attempts to regulate its business — not just in Australia, but all over the world. Now that we’ve had a few days to see how it’s played out, it seems like the general consensus from media experts is that no one is a winner here, but Facebook at least has a point. Many experts also just don’t like the proposed Australian law that inspired Facebook’s move. So while Facebook was right to balk at the law, the way it went about registering its objection was too abrupt, clumsy, and potentially harmful. By also demonstrating the sizable role the platform plays in keeping users informed, Facebook is taking what could be a huge gamble. On one hand, it could prompt the Australian government to come up with a law that Facebook prefers so that it’ll reverse the news block — the outcome Facebook almost certainly prefers other than there being no new law at all. But the situation could just as easily prove just how much market power Facebook has. This, in turn, might make the case for regulations to check Facebook’s power that much stronger. The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code — which is currently making its way through the Australian parliament and will likely pass before its session ends on February 25 — will require Facebook and Google to negotiate payment agreements with news organizations if they allow users to share news content on their respective platforms. If they don’t, an arbiter will figure out a payment agreement for them. Google and Facebook initially threatened to pull their services from the country if the law were to pass, but, as that passage looked more and more likely, their responses were very different. Google started making deals with publications. Facebook, “with a heavy heart,” cut the country off at the knees by banning news outlets altogether. Australians suddenly found themselves unable to share news links on their timelines, and publications found their pages essentially wiped of content. There was a global impact as well: Australians couldn’t share international news links, as international news publications were blocked in the country just like the native ones. The ban didn’t just affect the news, however. While Facebook told Recode that it intended to take “a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” the company appears to have been overzealous in its banning. Facebook blocked a lot of pages and links that weren’t news, including charities, bike trails, Facebook itself, and government agencies, including health sites, as the country prepares to begin its Covid-19 vaccine rollout. Either Facebook’s block was hasty and careless, or it was spiteful — or it was a combination of both. In any case, it wasn’t a good look. “Facebook managed to turn attention away from a flawed piece of legislation and on to its own reckless, opaque power,” wrote Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Journalism School. “Even for a company that specializes in public relations disasters, this was quite an achievement.” Techdirt founder and media analyst Mike Masnick, on the other hand, thought Facebook was perfectly within its rights to do what it did. He even argued that the news ban is in the best interests of a “free and open internet,” as the Australian law will force Google and Facebook to pay a “link tax” that he feels is “inherently problematic.” “A bunch of lazy newspaper execs who failed to adapt and to figure out better internet business models not only want the traffic, they also want to get paid for it,” Masnick wrote. “This is like saying that not only should NBC have to run an advertisement for Techdirt, but it should have to pay me for it. If that seems totally nonsensical, that’s because it is. The link tax makes no sense.” Many of those who criticize the new Australian law point out that Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp dominates Australian media, likely stands to gain the most from it. After all, when enacted, the law would require Google and Facebook to pay Murdoch, who used his considerable influence on the Australian government to push for legislation like this for years. Case in point: News Corp has already made a multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal with Google (Facebook’s ban was announced and implemented just hours after the Google-News Corp deal was announced). Australia’s other media giants, Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment, also worked out big deals with Google. But it remains to be seen how the law — or the threat of it — would benefit smaller publishers that don’t have the same resources or power to negotiate deals with one of the biggest companies in the world. Among those who have a problem with the law itself, many agree with the motivation behind it: Google and Facebook have benefited from the news industry. The platforms get traffic from users who are reading and sharing the news, but more importantly, they dominate the digital ad industry. Because most news outlets rely heavily on digital ads for revenue, they’re almost forced to agree to Facebook’s and Google’s terms and prices. So the tech giants get a nice cut from those ads, while news publications have effectively lost their business model. That dominance — and the media’s decline — is why the law was the recommendation of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which has been looking into Google and Facebook for years. Commissioner Rod Sims has said that he believes the two have too much market power, and the law is needed for media companies to have a chance at a fair deal for a cut of the profits those platforms have made off of their content. Prime Minister Scott Morrison strongly urged Facebook to reconsider and “friend us again,” saying that the block was “not a good move” and may well have ramifications for the company beyond Australia’s borders. Canada, France, and the European Union are believed to be considering similar laws, and the United States is pursuing antitrust actions against Facebook, Google, and other Big Tech companies, both on state and federal levels. “There is a lot of world interest in what Australia is doing,” Morrison told the Associated Press. “That’s why I invite, as we did with Google, Facebook to constructively engage because they know that what Australia will do here is likely to be followed by many other Western jurisdictions.” Morrison added: “It’s not okay to unfriend Australia because Australia is very friendly.” But some of Australia’s 13 million Facebook users were not feeling very friendly in the aftermath of the block. A number of them told Recode that they saw Facebook’s move as an abuse of power, and feared they would now miss out on important news or emergencies, or that the news vacuum caused by the block would be filled with more misinformation. But one Recode reader had a different view: He hoped people would seek the news out on their own, rather than only reading whatever headlines were shared by friends. “I would be much more comfortable if all Aussies got their news direct from the source,” he said. “I think this would be best for quality journalism and the strength of our democracy.” It looks like some Australians are trying to do just that: The Australian Broadcast Company’s app was the most downloaded app in Australia’s App Store in the days following the ban. We’ll see how things progress. And if you live in Australia, you’ll have to go directly to your favorite news website for updates. Rebecca Heilweil contributed reporting to this story. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 8 days ago on re/code
Apple’s App Store privacy labels are here — but do they help? | Apple They’re not perfect, but App Store users still get something out of them. Apple’s privacy “nutrition labels” have been in the App Store for just over two months now. Privacy advocates were generally pleased to see these easy-to-read versions of app privacy policies; educating users about the secretive inner workings of their apps is almost always a positive development. The labels are just one of Apple’s new policies to give users more privacy at the possible expense of the app economy, which largely relies on collecting and selling furtively acquired user data. In early spring, Apple will release iOS 14.5, which will force apps to get user permission to track users across different apps for ad targeting, a move that Facebook has vocally opposed — and its exceedingly long labels may be a good hint as to why. But that update only applies to tracking users across apps; the labels give users more information about the data being tracked as they use the app themselves. That could be useful information, if done right. “Any additional transparency that companies and especially platforms like Apple can provide, in terms of how apps and companies are collecting and using personal data — that’s good,” John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told Recode. “It’s good for consumers to be able to access that information.” But in practice, some reviews have said, the labels need a little work. The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler found some apps were not being truthful about their privacy policies in their labels, and that could create a false sense of security for consumers. The New York Times’s Brian X. Chen thought the labels were informative, up to a point. The labels gave him a sense of how much data an app was collecting about him, but not what that data was being used for. Of course, those reviews have come from the perspective of tech journalists, who know more about data privacy and data collection than the average person. I wanted to know what normal people, who don’t spend their day thinking about Facebook Pixels and the fallacy of de-identified data, thought of the labels. Did they understand them? Did they learn anything from them? Did they change their behavior in any way? Did they even know the labels existed at all? So that’s what I asked 12 (relatively normal) people: friends, family, and Vox readers. Here’s what I found — and where there’s room for improvement. The labels only work if people know they’re there Many of the people I spoke with didn’t even know the privacy labels existed, which is a problem for a feature that’s meant to provide information. The labels show up on the app’s page in the App Store, and you have to scroll down past several sections — past What’s New, Preview, and Ratings & Reviews — to get to them. Then you have to tap “see details” to get the full label. If you’re just updating an app that you’ve already downloaded to your device, you probably won’t even go to that app’s page to see the label. “I think that they make it so easy to download that you don’t scroll down to read all of the fine print,” Tyana Soto, a packaging designer in New York, said. “I have never once scrolled down further than that download button. If it’s an app I really want, I don’t read all of the details or investigate further — which I’m now realizing I should.” Reza Shamshad, a student from New Jersey, did know that the labels existed (he’s been waiting to check them out since they were first announced last June) and says he likes them, except for their placement. “I fear the average consumer will not have any incentive to scroll down far enough to actually use them, given that one is primarily just interested in downloading the app quickly — especially if it’s free,” he said. Even the simplest presentations can get complicated The labels are meant to be as easy to understand and as user-friendly as possible, but the app data collection industry is complicated and secretive. Data brokers want to collect as much information about you as possible (even data you didn’t even know it was possible to collect) without you realizing they’re doing it. Apple’s labels have to strike a balance between giving the general user enough information to understand what an app is doing with their data, but not so much that the labels become as dense and complex as the privacy policies they’re supposed to summarize. When apps only collected a few types of data, that appears to work pretty well on the labels. But apps that collected a lot of data ended up with very long lists that people found to be less informative. The privacy labels for the Facebook and Instagram apps, for instance, seemingly checked every data collection box that Apple offered. The result was a CVS-receipt-length privacy label that basically says Facebook may collect every category of data about you, including anything that doesn’t fall into a category. Here’s Facebook’s full label — get ready to scroll: Facebook’s privacy label is very long. The labels of Facebook’s other apps — WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook Gaming — show that they also collect a lot of data, though they said they didn’t use it to track users, as Facebook and Instagram do. That’s an especially bad look for WhatsApp, which has promoted itself as a private, encrypted messaging app. “Facebook had ‘other data types’ for all the categories of data,” Christine Sica, an account manager from Connecticut, said. “Anything not listed above could fall into that category of data they are collecting. They also use your physical address for all categories of data. I don’t ever recall giving out that information unless they base that on the location of your phone. It also appears they use ‘sensitive info’ for several categories. What constitutes sensitive info? Who would I even ask that question?” According to Apple, sensitive info includes “racial or ethnic data, sexual orientation, pregnancy or childbirth information, disability, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, political opinion, genetic information, or biometric data.” Sica wasn’t the only one who was confused over what data was being collected by the app without your permission and what could be collected only if you chose to provide it (or grant access to it). When Sica saw that Facebook collected audio data, she wondered if that meant the app was listening to her. But that’s only supposed to happen if you give Facebook audio permission and are actively using your microphone, for instance if you’re using Messenger’s Rooms feature for a video chat. Facebook isn’t listening to you beyond that (at least, that’s what the company and independent researchers say). So you have some control over the collection of certain data, but you can’t stop Facebook’s apps from, say, collecting your device ID or IP address. That’s a distinction that might be worth making for users who want to know how and what they can control. Waze may collect your health and fitness data, which the company says helps the app know if you’re parking your car. Some people also couldn’t figure out why certain categories of data were being collected from the labels alone. Waze’s label says it collects “Health & Fitness” information for app functionality, which was one of several reasons why Maria, a teacher from New York, found the labels to be “horrifying” — she couldn’t see how fitness information helped the app function, or what fitness information was being collected in the first place. Waze told Recode that the purpose of this is to detect certain motion activity when a user parks their car. Taking Waze at its word, it’s not as creepy as the privacy label made it seem, but Maria couldn’t have known that from just the label. Labels alone may not give you all the information you need While the people I spoke to generally found the labels to be informative on a surface level, they weren’t sure what to make of them beyond that. “Seemed easily understandable but then afterwards I found myself thinking, ‘Wait, what does that actually MEAN??’” said Sara Morrison (not me; my sister-in-law). Apple likes to say that its labels are like food nutrition labels, but there is an important difference. While food nutrition labels put that information in context with the daily value percentage, Apple’s labels don’t make value judgments on whether certain data collection is good or bad, if an app is too invasive for the service it provides, or how it compares to other apps. You have to figure that out for yourself, and you may not have enough knowledge to really do that. Davisson said he thought the labels could be most useful if someone were trying to decide which of two similar apps to download. The more privacy-centric app could get the edge there. “I think it’s analogous to checking the forecast before you leave in the morning,” Davisson said. “If you see a 10 percent chance of rain, you might not bring your umbrella. If you see a 90 percent chance of rain, you might bring your umbrella. So if you’re looking at a side-by-side comparison and you see one app collects 50 categories of data and the other collects zero, that’s probably a good indication that that one is taking privacy seriously.” So most people will have to read beyond the labels if they really want to know and understand what’s being collected and how. Here are two guides that should provide more clarity, or you can (shudder) read the app’s privacy policy. You’re also relying on app developers to be honest about their data collection practices because, as the label says, Apple doesn’t verify them (the company says it does do audits, but those wouldn’t cover every single app). The developers have to submit the label when they upload a new app or update an existing one, and basically just check off the boxes that Apple provides. Citing concerns that developers may not be truthful, the US House Commerce Committee has asked Apple to explain how and when it audits the labels for accuracy. One person I talked to was surprised to discover that Google’s Gmail app had no label yet, because it hadn’t been updated in months. That said, companies risk being kicked out of the App Store and getting in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission if they lie. You just have to hope that’s enough of an incentive for developers to be honest. Labels aren’t perfect, but they’re useful Despite the limitations, everyone I talked to was glad the labels were there, even if they didn’t personally learn anything new from them. Several people said they would check the labels before downloading apps, now that they knew they existed and where they were. And some were sufficiently freaked out by what they saw on the labels that they adjusted some of their permissions and even deleted some of their apps. Sascha Rissling, a web developer from Germany, told Recode he was “shocked” by how much information Twitter said it collected, so he deleted Twitter’s and Facebook’s apps from his phone. Several people told me that they turned off (or restricted) app access to their location data. A few others were pleased to discover that certain apps collected a lot less data than they expected — for instance, Microsoft Solitaire Collection, Among Us, and True Coach. And then there’s Signal, the private messaging app that says it collects virtually nothing. When it comes to making users more aware, at least on a general level, of just how much data apps can collect about them, the labels seem to do the job. But they also show just how much work consumers have to do if they want to minimize data collection. Everyone I talked to said that privacy was important to them, but many of them didn’t know what to do about it, or where and when it was being invaded, even after reading the labels. Some described privacy as an “uphill” or “losing” battle, and resigned themselves to having very little of it. And they’re not wrong. They will, at least, have a little more control over some tracking when the iOS update that includes its App Tracking Transparency feature goes live sometime this spring. And it’s very possible the labels themselves will improve with time; Apple has said they are a work in progress. “It should not be on the consumer to police all of this themselves, and to try to ascertain exactly what’s being collected, how it’s being used, and whether they find the developers’ representations trustworthy,” Davisson said. “We don’t expect people to regulate their own food supply; We should not expect individuals to regulate the use of their personal data by companies and third parties.” Awareness is good, but empowerment is better. The labels promote the former. I’m not so sure about the latter. Or, as Maria lamented: “This information has made me slightly more paranoid than I already am.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 9 days ago on re/code
The Perseverance rover is the size of a small car and more technologically sophisticated than anything you’ve ever seen. | NASA / JPL Some powerful autonomous tech has landed on the red planet. At 3:55 pm ET on February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover finally landed on Mars, completing a journey through space that began last July. The fifth rover to land on the red planet, this boxy, car-sized vehicle with an extendable arm is now charged with looking for signs of ancient life and gathering data about Mars’s geology and climate. It will even lay the groundwork for eventual human exploration of the planet. To make all that possible, the rover carries a stunning display of technology designed especially for Perseverance’s historic mission, from pieces of a new spacesuit to an autonomous helicopter, the first aircraft ever sent to another planet. Those tools will help the rover gather data about the planet’s atmosphere, which it can then send back to NASA. There’s also an excavation system that can collect high-quality samples of Martian soil to be stashed and later analyzed by a future mission to Mars. Hello, world. My first look at my forever home. #CountdownToMars pic.twitter.com/dkM9jE9I6X— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 18, 2021 In the years the new rover is expected to operate, these machines will battle challenges that terrestrial technology never has to deal with, including Mars’s super-thin atmosphere, limited resources, incredibly cold temperatures, and delayed communication with human overlords on Earth. To give you an idea of how all this will happen, we’ve outlined some of the coolest features that will be on display now that Perseverance has finally arrived on Mars. Perseverance is armed with advanced self-driving tech Key to its mission’s success is the ability for Perseverance to self-drive. The vehicle has a computer devoted to its autonomous capabilities, and as Wired explains, it was designed and built specifically for this mission. The autonomous driving feature is essential because Mars is simply too far away for humans to give the vehicle constant, real-time instructions. So the rover needs to fend for itself. “One of the fundamental constraints of any kind of space exploration — whether you’re going to Mars or Europa or the moon — is that you have limited bandwidth, which means a limit on the amount of information you can send back and forth,” David Wettergreen, research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, told Recode. “During the periods of time when the robot can’t communicate, autonomy is important for it to enable it to keep doing tasks, to explore on its own, to make progress, rather than just sitting there waiting for the next time it hears from us.” But building an autonomous vehicle for Mars is not necessarily as easy as building a self-driving car here on Earth (and that’s not easy, either). For one thing, the vehicle needs to be primarily concerned with safety, not with speed or the comfort of its passengers. After receiving basic instructions from humans about where it needs to go, Perseverance has to figure out the least-dangerous route on its own. If it crashes, the rover might render itself useless. “Mars is not a fixed, flat, nice, paved road. Mars is really challenging terrain. There is dirt, rocks, sand, slopes, cliffs — all these things that the rover is going to have to avoid,” explained Philip Twu, robotics system engineer at NASA. “In addition to cameras, the rover is also going to need computers, algorithms, and software to be able to process all that imagery data into essentially a 3D picture that it’s then going to go ahead and use to plan.” Fortunately for Perseverance, Mars is not a place where a self-driving rover needs to worry about crashing into another car or hitting a pedestrian. “On Mars, there’s nothing moving around,” said Wettergreen. “They’re moving slowly, so they can take the time to build a detailed model, do a lot of analysis on that model, and then decide what to do next.” A robotic arm will take samples of Mars that will be studied back on Earth The vehicle is also armed with a 7-foot-long arm equipped with a drill that’s designed to collect rock and soil samples from beneath Mars’s surface. Those samples will then be stored in as many as 43 containers that the rover carries around on the planet. Once those samples are collected, they’ll be left in tubes that will sit on Mars’s surface for a future mission to pick up. The arm alone isn’t all that impressive as a piece of space technology. Instead, its virtue is all the stuff that it comes, well, armed with. “It’s like a Swiss Army knife of scientific instruments,” said Wettergreen. “What’s so amazing about it is all of these different functionalities and capabilities that they’ve been able to pack into such a small package.” For instance, on the arm is a robotic claw equipped with a laser and other tools, including a camera called Watson that NASA compares to “a geologist’s hand-lens, magnifying and recording textures of rock and soil targets,” which is part of a tool — fittingly named Sherloc — that comes with special spectrometers and a laser. There’s also a tool called PIXL that can analyze incredibly tiny chemical elements and, in NASA’s words, take “super close-up pictures of rock and soil textures” to help scientists figure out whether Mars could have been home to microbial life in the past. High-tech cameras and microphones will give the rover “senses” Integrated into the rover are a slew of extremely high-quality cameras — 23 in total — that will help the vehicle survey the planet. The cameras won’t just help Perseverance get around Mars, but they’ll also take images of samples collected on the planet and record the vehicle’s arrival on the surface in full color. Meanwhile, NASA says that so-called “engineering” cameras will take on tasks like helping the vehicle avoid potentially treacherous areas, like sand dunes and trenches, while others will help the system navigate without human intervention. NASA There are 23 cameras aboard Perseverance. At the same time, the rover will pick up sound data through its two microphones. Those devices will listen to the rover as it arrives and travels on the planet. There’s a special microphone that works in conjunction with a laser to study the chemistry of the planet’s geology by zapping it and recording the sound of the zapping. As NASA explains, the microphone hears the intensity of the “pop” made by the laser turning the rock into plasma, which “reveals the relative hardness of the rocks, which can tell us more about their geological context.” A self-driving helicopter will fly on another planet. That’s a first. Also aboard the rover is Ingenuity, which will — if all goes as planned — be the first helicopter to fly on Mars as well as the “first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet,” according to NASA. That makes Ingenuity an experiment on its own, one that has undergone extensive testing on Earth. Its mission is to demonstrate that flight on Mars, where it will conduct up to five test flights, is possible, and that flights can be conducted autonomously on the planet. While the device is essentially a drone, it’s specially crafted for Mars, which has less gravity than Earth. This makes ascent easier, but due to the planet’s comparatively thin atmosphere, flight itself is more challenging. As The Verge reports, the blades of the helicopter can make more than 2,000 revolutions a minute, several times the speed of helicopter blades whipping around in Earth’s atmosphere. Ingenuity is incredibly light, weighing in at around 4 pounds. But the tiny vehicle’s autonomy is not just designed to help with navigation; it’s also built to keep Ingenuity alive. “Mars is very, very cold. It gets to about negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit at night. That’s pretty cold,” explained Twu. “So the autonomy onboard the helicopter is also involved with finding a way to keep the helicopter warm enough to survive all the Martian nights.” If the helicopter is ultimately successful, it will help NASA make decisions about where flight could lend assistance during future missions to the planet. Similar drones could serve as scouts that survey the terrain of Mars — especially places that rovers can’t easily get to — or, as NASA says, become “full standalone science craft carrying instrument payloads.” Will we be seeing any of this tech on Earth one day? It’s hard to say right now, but Twu notes that NASA is famous for its spinoffs. “Time and time again, we’ve seen that technology developed for NASA missions — a lot of them for space missions — end up having terrestrial applications here on Earth,” he said. “All technology development can cross-pollinate and advances in one area inevitably result in advances in other areas.” Update, February 18, 2021, 3:58 pm ET: This piece was updated to include that Perseverance has now landed on Mars. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 9 days ago on re/code
Joe Kennedy offers a new bridge for Laurene Powell Jobs to Washington, DC. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images The grandson of Robert F. Kennedy lost an ugly race for the Senate last year. Democratic megadonor and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs is beefing up her political operation, bringing in heavyweights like former Massachusetts Congress member Joe Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, to help broker relationships in Washington, DC. Emerson Collective, Powell Jobs’s organization, hired Kennedy this month as a senior adviser, Recode has learned from an internal announcement. The former lawmaker becomes one of the highest-profile figures to work at the 150-person organization, bringing with him a Rolodex of valuable political contacts at the dawn of a new Democratic administration. “In this role, he will be a trusted collaborator offering guidance on how we can advance our policy priorities and our broader mission building an America that is more equal and just for all,” reads the Emerson note obtained by Recode. The representative for Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District rose to prominence after delivering the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union in 2018. The liberal millennial lawmaker then decided to forego running for a fifth term in the House to try to oust incumbent Sen. Ed Markey, who was more than three decades his senior and was a leading progressive voice in his own right. The race, which Kennedy lost, drew national attention and raised questions about the best direction for the party. Powell Jobs donated $5,600 to back Kennedy in his insurgent run. Powell Jobs is entering a new phase in her political influence: She and Emerson spent the last four years largely playing defense against the Trump administration, particularly on immigration policy, when she tried to push back on Trump’s attempt to terminate the DACA program for young undocumented immigrants. Now, with a friendlier administration that Powell Jobs strongly backed financially, Emerson will have the opportunity to play some offense and try to make tangible progress on its policy priorities like immigration, an issue area which requires a political touch. “We now have the opportunity to work for the systemic solutions we know we need — solutions that can remake the calcified systems in our country, from immigration and education to race and reconciliation, criminal justice and climate,” Powell Jobs said in an email to supporters the weekend after the election was called. “We will let out the breath we have been holding in for so long. As celebratory as we feel, we also know that much work lies ahead — the work of healing the wounds and repairing the breaches.” Emerson has always had experts in its priority policy areas, but is now expanding its political and media chops. The organization has created two new roles, including one called Director of Campaigns and Partnerships, to execute “communications and public affairs campaigns that strengthen our influence, media coverage, coalition development, message and stakeholder relationships,” according to a job posting. Also on the political front, Emerson Collective last year quietly invested in Civis Analytics, a prominent Democratic data firm launched by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Recode is told. Emerson’s work in Washington has long rolled up to chief of staff Stacey Rubin, Powell Jobs’s aide-de-camp and a former official in the Clinton administration. But adding Kennedy offers another bridge to key politicians. Kennedy has also taken up side gigs as a commentator on CNN; as an adviser to the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty group; and has started a new political action committee. The once-rising star notably also hasn’t ruled out running for office again.

Read More...
posted 9 days ago on re/code
Facebook is blocking Australians from sharing news links in response to a proposed law that would force the company to pay for news. | Robert Cianflone/Getty Images And why Google is actually going to pay news publishers. If you’re an Australian Facebook user who loves to share the news on your timeline, you may have noticed something different recently: You can’t. Australia is on the cusp of passing a law called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which would force Facebook and Google to pay publishers if they host their content. The law is a response to years-long complaints from news outlets around the world about the role that Google and Facebook — and their mammoth digital ad businesses — have played in the decline of journalism and the decimation of its business model in the internet age. The two companies have responded in different ways: Google is making deals with Australian news publishers; Facebook is cutting them off entirely. Based on reasoning that the law won’t apply to it as long as news links can’t be shared on its platform, Facebook has banned all users from sharing links to Australian news sources; Australian publications’ pages from hosting any of their own content at all; and Australian users from sharing any news links at all, Australian or international. This is what happens when you try to share a link to an Australian news source. And this is what Australia’s news pages look like now. Facebook also seems to be blocking anything it thinks is an Australian news source — which currently includes several sites that are decidedly not news outlets. There were reports of government pages being restricted, for example. (Also, bike trails.) Even non-Australian news pages, like Vox.com, are blocked for Australian users. The overzealous ban, however, was apparently intentional and maybe even a little bit punitive. “As the law does not provide a clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” Facebook told Recode. “However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Facebook’s move would only make his government more determined to pass the law — and might encourage a few other governments to do something similar. “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison wrote in a Facebook post. “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.” He added: “We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament as it votes on our important News Media Bargaining Code.” The law Facebook hates but Google is learning (and paying) to live with The proposed law — which looks likely to be passed — says that digital platforms like Facebook and Google have to pay news organizations if their content is featured on those platforms, like in Google search results or Facebook shares. Google and Facebook are the only two companies that would be subject to the law currently, but it could also apply to any other digital platforms designated by the government. The platforms and the publishers have to come to a payment agreement, or else go before an arbiter who will decide a fair price for them that they will have to pay, or else face significant penalties. Google and Facebook, who dominate a digital ad business that pays them billions of dollars while news organizations go bankrupt, have been vehemently opposed to the law. Over the last several months, both have threatened to take their services away from Australians if it were to pass. In the end, Google blinked. The search giant has already started working out payment deals with Australian publications. On Wednesday, it announced a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch, Australia’s exceedingly rich and powerful news magnate and native son, has been very vocal about wanting a law that forces digital platforms to pay his publications, and he may well have influenced the country’s decision to move forward with this law. News Corp now has a multi-year deal with Google. Terms were not disclosed, but the New York Times reported it was worth tens of millions of dollars. Google also made a deal with Australia’s Seven West Media and has agreed to work out licensing deals with French publications as France considers a similar law. Facebook, obviously, took a different tack. If Australians can’t share news links, and Australian news organizations can’t post their own content, then Facebook believes Australia’s law won’t apply to it — after all, there’s nothing to pay media companies for. But there’s also no law in place yet. Facebook cut Australian news publications off before it really had to, which gives them, their government, and their readers a taste of what’s to come if the media law goes through. Facebook may be hoping that a preview of the platform without Australian news will make lawmakers more amenable to passing a version of the law that Facebook prefers. Facebook might be in the right here, depending on whom you believe While some have cheered Australia’s move, reasoning that anything that gets tech companies to pay news organizations back for the content (or ad dollars) they’ve used to build their own platforms, other media analysts believe the law is a case of the government forcing companies to pay other companies — specifically, those owned by one of that government’s richest and most influential (former) citizens. What was well intentioned may end up only making rich people even richer, with little benefit to anyone else. Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis called the law a case of “media blackmail” and said Google had “caved” to “the devil Murdoch.” Facebook, on the other hand, either “stood on principle” or just decided news content for Australian users wasn’t worth enough to the company to have to pay for it. Facebook said on Wednesday that it doesn’t think the law “recognizes the realities of how our services work.” The social network believes that it’s actually the publishers that benefit from Facebook, not the other way around. “Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million,” Facebook said (take those figures, which have not been independently verified, with a very large grain of salt). And Facebook apparently barely needs news articles, which the company says makes up “less than four percent of the content people see in their News Feed.” That might be because Facebook has, in recent years, intentionally de-emphasized news links in News Feeds in favor of posts from friends and family, and removed the “Trending” box that featured links to news articles. In fact, Facebook said, it lets news organizations use its services for free, posting links to their articles for Facebook users, who then click on those links and give those news organizations precious traffic. What Facebook didn’t say was that this traffic isn’t worth nearly as much to those publishers as it could be, because Facebook and Google control the majority of the digital ads market and make most of the money from it, rather than the outlets whose content those ads are posted on. This is why Australia wants to force them to pay those publishers fairly in the first place. A few other places, including France and Canada — and even the much larger European Union — have suggested they might follow Australia’s lead, too. Facebook claims that it’s not opposed to paying news organizations and had wanted to launch in Australia Facebook News, a platform on which the company would pay publishers to license their content, as it’s already doing in the United States and the United Kingdom. Those deals would, of course, be on Facebook’s terms. The company doesn’t like being regulated, so it’s cut Australia off before it can be.

Read More...
posted 10 days ago on re/code
Former Amazon employee Christian Smalls outside a company warehouse in March 2020. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images The lawsuit also alleges that Amazon’s own HR managers disagreed with the firing of the whistleblower Christian Smalls. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Amazon on Tuesday evening, claiming that the company did not do enough to protect its warehouse workers during the pandemic and unlawfully fired or disciplined two employees who spoke out about safety issues. The suit alleges that Amazon violated state law with respect to its sanitation practices during the pandemic and “implemented an inadequate COVID-19 tracing program that failed to consistently identify workers who came into close contact with employees who tested positive for COVID-19.” The 64-page complaint also contains a nugget that could hurt Amazon’s defense against firing one of the whistleblowers: Two of Amazon’s own Human Resources employees agreed that Christian Smalls’s firing “did not seem justified,” the AG’s office claims. The legal battle comes as Amazon continues to find itself at the center of the most contentious labor battle in its history. In the first few months of the pandemic, Amazon fired at least six employees who were involved in worker protests or who spoke out about working conditions at Amazon package facilities. The National Labor Relations Board has found merit in allegations by one of them, Courtney Bowden, and she will get a hearing in March, according to BuzzFeed News. Thousands of workers at a giant Amazon warehouse in Alabama are also currently voting by mail on whether to unionize, in the first union vote of this size at one of Amazon’s US facilities. Union organizers are arguing that, even before the pandemic turbocharged the volume of products flowing through Amazon facilities, the mandatory pace of work inside Amazon’s warehouses has been unsafe and inhumane. The New York AG’s investigation, which began in late March, focused on working conditions and practices inside two of Amazon’s New York City facilities: a large warehouse in Staten Island and a smaller delivery station in Queens. “Amazon’s flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements has threatened serious illness and grave harm to the thousands of workers in these facilities and poses a continued substantial and specific danger to the public health,” the lawsuit reads. Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told the Washington Post in an emailed statement: “We care deeply about the health and safety of our employees, as demonstrated in our filing last week, and we don’t believe the Attorney General’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic.” New York’s top lawyer also alleges that Amazon unlawfully fired Smalls, a warehouse assistant manager, and unlawfully disciplined another worker, Derrick Palmer, who complained to managers about what they felt were subpar safety precautions, and who spoke out in the media about their working conditions. Amazon fired Smalls on the evening of March 30, which was the same day that he led a small walkout of employees at the Staten Island facility to protest what they said were unsafe working conditions. Amazon said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing policies while he was on paid quarantine leave, but two of Amazon’s own Human Resources employees disagreed with his termination, according to the complaint. Amazon’s “[Human Resources business partner] communicated in writing to HR Manager Hernandez that Smalls’s firing did not seem justified because Smalls had not entered the JFK8 facility on March 30 and Amazon had not communicated to him that his quarantine order prohibited him from entering Amazon property outside the facility and Smalls had engaged in social distancing during his discussions with JFK8 managers,” the complaint reads. “In response, HR Manager Hernandez stated that she agreed.” The lawsuit wants Amazon to offer Smalls his job back and provide back pay as well as “emotional stress damages” to him and Palmer. It also calls for Amazon to “take all affirmative steps, including changing policies, conducting training, and undergoing monitoring, among others, to ensure that Amazon reasonably and adequately protects the lives, health, and safety of its employees.”

Read More...
posted 10 days ago on re/code
Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Financial advisers suggest better ways to invest your money than day trading on Robinhood. The recent astronomical rise of meme stocks brought many people to the stock market for the first time, typically through Robinhood, the commission-free stock trading app that has promised to democratize access to the stock market. According to a number of financial advisers, the app appears to be democratizing certain types of risky investing, like day trading. There are potentially less risky — and equally user-friendly — app options out there. The thing is, it’s impossible to predict the market. Many professionals spend their entire careers trying to do so, with varying levels of success. And regular people who invest in individual stocks in the short term are likely to lose money, no matter what you hear on TikTok. Study after study has said so. Particularly worrisome are “herding events,” including those fomented in Reddit’s WallStreetBets community that encouraged hoards of people to invest in certain stocks, like GameStop and AMC. On Robinhood, people were already more likely than other retail investors — people who aren’t professionals — to invest in the same stocks as other users, according to Christopher Schwarz, faculty director of the University of California Irvine’s Center for Investment and Wealth Management and one of the authors of a paper looking at outcomes of investor behavior on Robinhood. When too many people crowd a stock, “the price of the stock overshoots what it should be and over subsequent days it corrects.” The study, which was conducted using Robinhood trading data from 2018 to 2020, found that those who invested in the top 10 newly purchased stocks saw returns in the next month that were 5 percent lower than that of the S&P 500 index — a “pretty horrific” outcome, Schwarz said. Robinhood is the only trading app that’s disclosed user holdings so the researchers did not compare investors’ performance on its competitors. Put another way, “if you were a Robinhood user and bought those top 10 stocks every day, you would have lost 97 percent of your money over two years,” Schwarz said. He added, “It’s probably one of the biggest negative returns documented by academics.” Robinhood has been criticized for letting people trade on credit and for making investing feel like a game, using elements like confetti and color-coding in the app to stimulate trading. “We are proud to expand access to the financial system and enable millions of people to learn and invest responsibly,” a Robinhood spokesperson told Recode. “We see evidence that most Robinhood customers use a buy and hold strategy, and research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Robinhood customers acted as a market stabilizing force through market volatility in 2020.” Still, even professionals don’t have a great track record picking stocks. Investors in equity mutual funds consistently underperform the S&P 500 index, according to Cory Clark, chief marketing officer at financial services market research firm Dalbar and primary author of a longstanding report on the topic. These institutional investors fall prey to confirmation bias, in which a positive trade makes them overly confident in their abilities, he said. There’s reason to believe regular people could be even more susceptible. “In the context of day trading, it’s that on steroids,” Clark said. “It’s very dangerous for average investors.” All this is to say, day trading — buying and selling stocks over short periods of time — is not a reliable way to build wealth, according to these financial advisers. As Gretchen Behnke, principal at Pearl Financial Planning, put it, “Individual stock picking is almost always going to be too risky for regular people.” What she and every other financial professional we spoke to suggested was the opposite of day trading individual stocks: investing in highly diversified and low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or index funds and leaving that money in there for a long time. Of course, speak with your own financial adviser or investment professional to decide what’s best for you. “Prudent investment can be pretty dull,” Zach Teutsch, a managing partner at the advisory firm Values Added Financial, told Recode. “If it’s fun, it’s probably because someone gamified it to make it more enjoyable as entertainment — all to help profit off of the investor.” How to best use Robinhood and other day-trading apps The safest bet on Robinhood would be buying a wide variety of ETFs, rather than individual stocks like GameStop or even riskier products like options. Like mutual funds — which you can’t purchase on Robinhood, but you can buy on competitors’ apps like Schwab, Fidelity, and Vanguard — ETFs are low-fee baskets of professionally managed stocks that follow a particular investment strategy. Some ETFs and mutual funds, for example, provide exposure to all the stocks in the S&P 500, while others are dedicated to different company sizes or industries. One such fund, Adasina Social Justice All Cap Global ETF, includes 900 companies that Adasina says are in alignment with social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. “This whole situation with GameStop came from popular discontent with wealth inequality,” Rachel Robasciotti, the founder and CEO of Adasina Social Capital, said. “If you’re ready to put your money where your values are, do it in a smart way. Use a fund that’s diversified.” Financial advisers encourage investing in such funds to give people exposure to a wider range of stocks than they would get by picking individual stocks, so that their risk is more balanced. The idea is that hopefully declines in certain stocks are countered by gains in others. Many financial advisers also suggest leaving your money in these funds for long periods of time. Teutsch likens trying to get huge returns quickly to substituting a recipe that requires 400 degrees for an hour with double the temperature for half the time. “That’s what people try to do in investing. That’s not how investment works,” he said. When people are investing in the short term in individual stocks, it can be tempting to buy and sell with market swings, he said. Huge gains — like the more than 1,700 percent rise on GameStop this year before its subsequent fall — are possible, but so are huge losses. Stocks are volatile in the short term, but in the long term, the market as a whole tends to go up, which is why advisers suggest investing money and then leaving it alone for years if not decades. Longer-term investments are also better from a taxation point of view. People who are new to day trading on Robinhood might be surprised by how much investment income is taxed. If you sell your investments within a year of buying them, for example, you could be taxed at significantly higher capital gains rates than if you were to hold onto them for more than a year. Financial advisers we spoke to say, if you’re going to day trade on apps like Robinhood, make sure you’re doing so with only a small percentage of your money. “You can take a small amount of money and play with it, but consider it an entertainment expense,” Behnke said. “This is separate from savings and retirement.” Similarly, the experts also say not to invest money you don’t have. Robinhood lets people trade on margin, meaning that they give you a small loan. That potentially allows people to invest — or lose — more money than they have. Other investment apps take a different approach The latest buzz around meme stocks has meant a greater consciousness of investing in general, as a way to compound wealth and save for retirement. And Robinhood’s rise has been paralleled by increased popularity in investment apps that don’t involve day trading, like Acorns, Betterment, Wealthfront, and, to some extent, Stash. Acorns, for example, saw 100,000 new customers the day of the GameStop news. For a fee, these apps handle the slow, boring work of investing your money in diversified funds (usually ETFs) as well as provide some other services like portfolio rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting so that your money can make more money — slowly but steadily. We’ve outlined how they work: Acorns ($1-$5 a month) Acorns lets you automatically add money to a wide variety of ETFs in a range of pre-selected portfolios, through regularly scheduled deposits and by rounding up money on your purchases and putting that money into your account. It also does unsexy stuff such as reinvesting dividends and rebalancing your portfolio. Acorns CEO Noah Kerner wants customers to invest their money as long as possible. “People get themselves in trouble because suddenly people get panicked and lock in a loss,” he said. “That’s the moment to stick with it and even invest more.” Acorns has a monthly subscription model, as opposed to Robinhood, which doesn’t charge users but makes money depending on the volume of trades. Kerner believes Acorns’ business model allows it to better serve its customers. “The business model dictates how a company makes decisions,” Kerner said. “I’m not in the business of trying to make decisions misaligned with your best interests.” Betterment (0.25 percent of assets under management per year) Betterment sets investors up with a range of diversified ETFs based on a number of factors, like their age and aversion to risk, all of which are determined by a questionnaire. “This is not short-term, speculative, to-the-moon kind of stuff,” Dan Egan, VP of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment, told Recode. Investors can let Betterment choose for them or decide to put their money into socially responsible portfolios, like those related to preventing climate change or encouraging social justice. Accounts have something called tax-loss harvesting, which helps people lower their tax bills by using losses to offset gains. The app also notifies people trying to sell off assets how much more they might have to pay in taxes compared with keeping the investment in longer. Like Robinhood, Betterment uses visual cues within the app. Unlike Robinhood, whose color-coding is based on how much a stock is up or down and may cause people to react to prices after the fact, Egan says Betterment uses color-coding to motivate people to follow their stated investment goals. “You can’t change yesterday’s returns but can make changes to put your financial plan on track,” he said. Wealthfront (0.25 percent of assets under management per year) Wealthfront also uses a questionnaire to determine the best investment strategy for people, depending on criteria like age and risk aversion. The site is designed to operate very differently than Robinhood. “We are definitely on the other side of the spectrum from a day-trading platform. Our whole thesis on investing is you can’t control or beat the market on a consistent basis,” Kate Wauck, VP of communications, said. Instead, the company puts people’s money in low-cost diversified index funds. It also does portfolio rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting, things it assumes most regular investors don’t want to be involved in. “We’re for people who’ve got some money saved in their bank account, and know it’s not making money, but don’t want to spend time thinking about investing and being actively involved,” she said. Stash ($1-$9 per month) Stash is sort of an amalgam of Robinhood and Acorns. Like Robinhood, it lets you invest in individual stocks and ETFs but tries to get you to hold on to those for a longer term. “We purposely built a bad day-trading system,” its founder and CEO Brandon Krieg told CNBC earlier this month. “Our brand and our message, as well as our onboarding, are not attractive to someone who’s coming to day trade.” Like Acorns, it encourages people to increase their investments with automated deposits and by rounding up money spent on purchases. The user is responsible for picking individual stocks and ETFs to build a portfolio, but the app prompts the user to diversify those assets. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 11 days ago on re/code
Human rights activists hold photos of climate activist Disha Ravi while protesting her arrest in Bangalore, India on February 15, 2021. | Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images Greta Thunberg tweeted a “toolkit” for how to support India’s farmers. Now the Indian activist who helped create it has been arrested. The arrest of 22-year-old Indian climate activist Disha Ravi is the latest in a series of heavy-handed tactics Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is using to suppress support for thousands of farmers who have been protesting for months against agricultural reforms. The Delhi police accuse Ravi of being an “editor and key conspirator” in creating a farmers’ protest “toolkit,” a document that was shared widely online, including on Twitter by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. The toolkit contains a brief argument for why people should support the farmers’ protests, a list of suggested actions people can take internationally to do so, and some additional resources to help people organize. Here’s an updated toolkit by people on the ground in India if you want to help. (They removed their previous document as it was outdated.)#StandWithFarmers #FarmersProtesthttps://t.co/ZGEcMwHUNL— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 3, 2021 Thousands of farmers have been blocking roads into New Delhi for months, demanding the repeal of three laws that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party passed in September as a part of a plan to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2024. The laws, which some experts say are necessary to modernize India’s economy, remove longstanding restrictions on how and where produce is sold. Farmers who used to sell their produce at government-sanctioned markets called mandis are now able to sell wherever they please. But the farmers are worried that the reforms will leave them at the mercy of large corporations that will buy their crops for low prices, leading to their financial ruin. Their cause gained even more international attention earlier this month, when international celebrities including pop star Rihanna and Thunberg tweeted about the protests. But that online support also drew the attention of Modi’s right-wing nationalist government, which has sought to control the narrative around the protests and suppress dissent. The latest action in response to the toolkit is part of that effort. The Delhi police allege the document is a call to “wage economic, social, cultural, and regional war against India” and accuse Ravi of using it to “spread disaffection with the Indian state.” “The main aim of the toolkit was to create misinformation and disaffection against the lawfully enacted government,” Delhi Police official Prem Nath told reporters at a press briefing about Ravi’s arrest on Monday. Disha Ravi, arrested by CyPAD Delhi Police, is an Editor of the Toolkit Google Doc & key conspirator in document's formulation & dissemination. She started WhatsApp Group & collaborated to make the Toolkit doc. She worked closely with them to draft the Doc. @PMOIndia @HMOIndia https://t.co/e8QGkyDIVv— #DilKiPolice Delhi Police (@DelhiPolice) February 14, 2021 Ravi, an outspoken climate and animal rights activist and co-founder of India’s chapter of Fridays for the Future, a student climate movement founded by Thunberg, was arrested Saturday in her hometown, the southern city Bengaluru, on charges of sedition and conspiracy. She was then flown to appear before a New Delhi court on Sunday, where she has been ordered to remain in custody for five days. Appearing in court on Sunday without her own lawyer, Ravi denied the charges. “I did not make [the] toolkit,” Ravi, who was instead represented by a “stand-in” government lawyer, told the court. “We wanted to support the farmers. I edited two lines on February 3,” Ravi said. But according to Delhi police, Ravi’s role in creating the document was much bigger than she’s admitting to. Delhi police say she was a “key conspirator” in the toolkit’s “formulation & dissemination” and that she created (and later deleted) a WhatsApp group to collaborate with others on drafting the document. According to local news reports, Ravi is not alone in being charged for her role in editing the toolkit. Delhi police say lawyer Nikita Jacob and activist Shantanu Muluk participated in a Zoom call to discuss the toolkit on January 26, when peaceful farmers’ protests scheduled to coincide with the country’s celebration of Republic Day erupted into violent clashes with police. Ravi is being held under a sedition law long used by the government to squash dissent Under India’s sedition law, which Ravi has been charged with violating, “words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government” are punishable by a fine and, in the most extreme cases, life imprisonment. But Ravi’s arrest for her involvement with the toolkit appears to follow a dangerous pattern of the Indian government using the sedition law to silence its critics. A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch found that Modi’s government “uses draconian laws such as the sedition provisions of the penal code, the criminal defamation law, and laws dealing with hate speech to silence dissent.” “These laws are vaguely worded, overly broad, and prone to misuse, and have been repeatedly used for political purposes against critics at the national and state level,” the report states. Indeed, several prominent legal experts in India have questioned the charges against Ravi, arguing that her support for the farmers does not equal an attempt to overthrow the government. “Supporting farmers does not amount to sedition,” Rakesh Dwivedi, senior advocate for the Supreme Court of India, said Monday in reference to Ravi’s case. Another legal expert called Ravi’s arrest “unwarranted” and told the Times of India that Ravi’s action “appears to be nothing more than youthful exuberance in trying to engage on socially important issues on her part,” but that her arrest “appears to be a more blatant attempt by police to silence the dissenters.” Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times/Getty Images Members of All India Student Association protest against the arrest of youth climate activist Disha Ravi outside the Delhi Police headquarters, on February 16, 2021 in New Delhi, India. Ravi’s arrest has been further criticized on Twitter by some who see the detainment of the young climate activist as the latest in a series of attacks by Modi’s party on free speech. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted on February 14 that Ravi’s arrest was “unprecedented attack on democracy.” The same day, an opposition member of India’s parliament, P. Chidambaram, also weighed in on Ravi’s arrest, tweeting that “the Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if Disha Ravi, a 22 year old student of Mount Carmel college and climate activist, has become a threat to the nation.” Meena Harris, niece to US Vice President Kamala Harris, tweeted a link to Ravi’s story with information about activists being targeted and silenced by the Indian government. Thunberg, who tweeted a link to the toolkit on February 3 as a part of her broader support for the farmers’ protests, declined to comment on Ravi’s arrest on Monday. Thunberg and Rihanna have been subjected to vicious online attacks by right-wing pro-Modi trolls since speaking up for the farmers. But friends of Ravi’s are expressing shock at the arrest of someone whom they say took pains to follow the law. Those who knew Ravi remarked on how conscientious she was at protests, “urging us all to not obstruct traffic, or do anything that would inconvenience others,” a friend from Ravi’s hometown and fellow member of her Fridays for the Future climate group told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of making her situation worse. “It was hard for me to believe she is in this situation, because she is a very friendly, law-abiding person,” the friend said.

Read More...
posted 11 days ago on re/code
Google employees stage a walkout on November 1, 2018, in New York, over sexual harassment. | Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images The inside story behind Google’s famous mantra, according to a key former executive. Silicon Valley is full of lofty ideals. But few are as lofty as Google’s most famous motto: “Don’t be evil.” If you know anything about Google’s culture, you’ve probably heard those three words. They’re catchy. Quotable. Even mockable. “Don’t be evil” was at the top of the company’s code of conduct for over a decade, seeing the company through its exponential rise from scrappy startup to tech giant. The ideal is legendary. And its origin story is particularly telling about what Google was when it started — and the controversies surrounding the company today. In the first episode of Land of the Giants: The Google Empire — our new seven-part podcast about Google’s ascent to a global behemoth — Marissa Mayer, one of Google’s earliest and most influential executives, and now co-founder of the startup Sunshine, told us how the company embraced “don’t be evil.” Mayer says the idea of “Don’t be evil” came about when Google began making deals to monetize its search engine in the late ’90s. An early business meeting with the Washington Post raised excitement among Google’s engineers but also some trepidation. In particular, Mayer told us, one engineer named Amit Patel had serious doubts. “He was worried that [we] might tell the Washington Post that we’ll put an article that they think is more important first in the search results or not be as comprehensive if they didn’t want us to be. Things that he really viewed would compromise our integrity.” (Remember, at the time, Google’s whole goal for itself was to “organize the world’s information.”) A representative for Google could not confirm details of the meeting, but said that the company would never change search results because of a partner. And so, says Mayer, Patel went into the conference room where the Google team was going to meet with the Washington Post and wrote a message to his co-workers on the whiteboard “in the lower left-hand corner ... in tiny little letters, ‘don’t be evil.’” The line clearly resonated, because later, Mayer and some other longtime employees were tasked with coming up with an official code of conduct for the company. Mayer recalls that Paul Buchheit (a legendary Google engineer who would later come up with Gmail) brought back Patel’s note. “[Paul] said, can we just dispense with this exercise? We have our core value. It’s what Amit wrote on the whiteboard; it’s ‘don’t be evil.’” Buccheit told us he remembers the series of events slightly differently. He said he remembers first coming up with the “don’t be evil” saying during a meeting about core company values, and that afterwards Patel started writing “don’t be evil” around Google’s headquarters. But Buccheit also said he shared an office with Mayer and Patel at the time, so it’s possible Patel first “implanted” the mantra in Buccheit’s mind, in an “inception type scenario.” This all happened over 20 years ago, so it makes sense the grand “don’t be evil” origin story has a couple different variations, depending who you talk to. What matters though, is that the idea stuck. “Don’t be evil” quickly became part of Google’s identity, internally and to the outside world. It represented a new kind of ethos for a future corporate powerhouse, one that would help shape the culture of Silicon Valley and the many tech companies that formed in the past 20 years. Google was meant to be innovating technology to make the world a better place. In Google’s early days, applying the mantra of don’t be evil was simple: Don’t let advertisers buy their way to the top of search results, don’t charge people to find information, don’t spam people with banner ads on the homepage. Today, Google’s ability to fulfill that promise of not being evil is a lot more complicated. As Google has grown from a small operation with a single tool — search — into a global behemoth with hundreds of products, from Gmail to Google Maps to YouTube, that all have immense influence over how we communicate and discover information, people have started questioning whether Google is too big. They’re also scrutinizing whether the decisions it makes are harming the rest of us as it fulfills the corporate demand to make more profits. In the fall of 2020, the US Department of Justice and several state attorneys general filed three separate antitrust lawsuits against Google. The suits charge that Google holds monopoly power in online search and digital ad technology, and it is using that power to stifle competition. At the same time, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are also mad at Google — and other major tech companies — for different reasons. Some politicians think the company isn’t doing enough in taking down misinformation about things like Covid-19 or the 2020 election on its platforms. Other politicians allege the company is already doing too much and stifling partisan speech, like when Google’s YouTube recently suspended Donald Trump’s account for inciting violence in the wake of the capitol riots. It’s a reminder that “don’t be evil” can mean different things to different people. Even within Google’s own workforce, we see tension around what the company stands for. In November 2018, 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s handling of several high-profile sexual harassment claims, which revealed a host of internal conflicts, from objections about expanding Google’s business to accusations of a retaliatory culture against employees who speak out or try to unionize. It can seem hard to reconcile all this outrage about Google with the idea that Google was supposed to be the happiest of the tech giants. The one with the bright colorful logo, the clever doodles, the culture of innovation and excellence. And the do-good mantra. “Google doesn’t always do the right thing,” Dana Wagner, who served as Google’s antitrust lawyer from 2007 to 2011, told us. That’s because, Wagner said, “Sometimes it’s not clear what the right thing is.” In 2018, Google quietly moved “don’t be evil” to the very end of its code of conduct. But it’s still there: “And remember … don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up.” To the Google employees, politicians, and users who still hold Google to that standard — whatever their interpretation of it may be — those three words still matter. For more stories about Google’s incredible rise, covering everything from the mobile phone wars to the company’s internal tensions to its current antitrust battles, subscribe now to Land of the Giants: The Google Empire. And please tell us what you think: We’re on Twitter at @shiringhaffary and @kantrowitz.

Read More...
posted 15 days ago on re/code
Zac Freeland/Vox Our pick for February 2021 is Luster by Raven Leilani. The Vox Book Club is linking to Bookshop.org to support local and independent booksellers. Here’s how the Vox Book Club works: Every month, we pick a book. Throughout the month, we publish discussion posts containing thoughts and questions from Vox book critic Constance Grady, but we also have comments turned on and moderated so you can share your thoughts, too. Talk among yourselves! Post your opinions and questions! Or use our discussion posts as a jumping-off point for (socially distanced) discussions with your friends and family. And at the end of the month, we gather on Zoom for a virtual live discussion. Our pick for February 2021 is Raven Leilani’s debut novel Luster. Constance will host a live discussion of the book on Monday, February 22 with Leilani herself. Sign up here to be notified about new book selections, discussions, and related live events. Here’s the full Vox Book Club schedule for February 2021: Friday, February 12, 2021: Discussion post on Luster Monday, February 22, 2021: Live Zoom conversation with author Raven Leilani. RSVP now.

Read More...
posted 15 days ago on re/code
The pandemic has made people lonelier — a boon for romance scammers looking to steal peoples’ money. | Frederick Brown/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images During a pandemic that has caused a loneliness epidemic, people lost more than $300 million to romance scams. For many of the people caught up in an online romance scam, it starts something like this: You’re scrolling through a platform like Instagram, and you get a message from an attractive stranger. They say they’re in the military and are stationed abroad and it’s hard for them to travel due to the pandemic. Still, they think you’re cute, and you two hit it off in your direct messages. After all, the two of you have so much in common. A few months and hundreds of messages later, they say they need thousands of dollars to help their daughter, who is having some kind of emergency. You quickly send the money — and you never get it back. These kinds of tragic romance scams have been around for a while, but the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified loneliness and isolation for many people, and that’s making it easier for fraudsters to impersonate romantic interests — and steal money. In 2020, the amount of money people in the US lost to romance scams, which usually start online, surged 50 percent from the year before, jumping from just over $200 million in 2019 to more than $300 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission. While people 40 to 69 were the most likely to say they’ve lost money to these scams, reports of these scams are up across all age groups, according to the agency. With Valentine’s Day coming up, authorities are warning people to stay on high alert. These scams can target people all over the internet, including on Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn, as well as more traditional dating sites and apps like Match.com and Tinder. Often, a scammer who reaches out — many use stolen photos — will pretend to have a faraway job, like being in the military or working on an oil rig. On top of that, the pandemic has given scammers more excuses for not meeting in person. They might say in-person dates can’t happen due to social distancing requirements or travel restrictions. “There’s always a reason that they can’t meet in person. That’s one big red flag,” Emma Fletcher, a program analyst at the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, told Recode. “Then eventually, of course, they always ask for money, right? There’s always a creative story for why.” The consequences for people who are tricked by these ruses can be enormous: One Pennsylvania woman who recently fell for such a scam lost about $620,000. “They’re financially harmed, sometimes to the point of total financial collapse,” Fletcher said. “Then they’re absolutely devastated to realize it was all an illusion. And then there’s the humiliation and embarrassment that this could happen to them.” The people these scammers are exploiting are vulnerable in multiple ways. “They can’t socialize to get out there like they used to with their friends, and they start to look for friendships online. And that’s what these scammers are taking complete advantage of,” Kathy Waters, who founded a group called Advocating Against Romance Scammers, told Recode. “When you realize that you’ve not only lost this person, but you’ve lost every dime that you’ve saved to put forth for this new relationship, it can be pretty damning in not wanting to tell your family and feeling alone,” she said, adding that people who are targeted by these scams face not only financial repercussions but also psychological harm. Importantly, people who are scammed aren’t the only people who get hurt. Tom Ernsting, a model with more than 150,000 followers on Instagram, is one of many people whose images have been stolen for use in romance scams. He regularly hears from people, usually women, who believe he’s the guy they’ve been falling in love with on the internet. “During Covid, it’s definitely picked up because of more isolation,” Ernsting told Recode. ”But they’re just desperate for love and to get attention from somebody. And these guys are good. I mean, they copied my picture into their driver’s licenses, into passports. And [people] fall for it.” He said some of the stories he hears are heartbreaking. Waters, of Advocating Against Romance Scammers, told Recode that she’s met with Facebook and says they need to boost their reporting and warning resources for users who are susceptible to these kinds of scams. She’s also been talking to members of Congress about making changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that would give the FTC some authority to review a platform’s enforcement against fake online profiles. In the meantime, experts told Recode there are basic steps you can take to avoid falling for a romance scam, or to help protect your loved ones from such schemes. The FTC has published a list of lies scammers often tell those they target. At the same time, doing a reverse image search — which allows you to search the web based on a photo rather than on a keyword — can help you find out whether an image has been used across the web. Importantly, you should never ignore inconsistencies in stories strangers tell you in an online chat. And, of course, don’t wire money to online romantic interests or send gift cards. The FTC warns: “You won’t get it back.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 15 days ago on re/code
Welcome to Clubhouse. | Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Clubhouse has millions of users, millions of dollars, and very few privacy options. Did you get an invitation to join Clubhouse, the invite-only app that seemingly everyone is talking about? Before you decide to join the cool kids club, you might want to consider who will see you there, even if you take every available measure to keep your contacts private. Clubhouse is an audio-based app (still in beta) that allows users to create and join rooms where all kinds of topics are discussed. You can join speaking events or you can make your own room to chat. There’s also a big social component: You follow people, people follow you, and Clubhouse very much encourages these networks to form and grow. And as OneZero’s Will Oremus reported on Thursday, that’s led to a few privacy issues some Clubhouse users didn’t expect and can’t avoid, given the app’s lack of privacy controls or information about them. The primary piece of Clubhouse’s user recommendation engine relies on access to your contacts. You actually can’t invite anyone else to the platform if you don’t grant it. If you do give the app access to your contacts, Clubhouse will show you everyone on your contact list who is also on Clubhouse. It will also urge you to invite those who aren’t and let you know as soon as someone in your contacts has joined so you can say hello to them. This is all pretty standard for an app trying to gain new users. But what if you didn’t give Clubhouse access to your contacts, specifically because you didn’t want all or any of them to know you were there? I regret to inform you that Clubhouse has made it possible for them to know anyway, encourages them to follow you, and there isn’t much you can do about it. When I joined, I didn’t give Clubhouse access to my contacts; as has been my policy since childhood, only I may decide who enters my clubhouse. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, I had a bunch of followers from my contacts. Even worse: I got followers who weren’t in my contacts at all — but I was in theirs. It turns out that your privacy on Clubhouse depends not just on what you do but also on what those who have your information in their contacts do. For now, you can only get invited to Clubhouse through your phone number, which is attached to your account and can’t be removed. So if someone has your phone number in their contacts, and they’ve given Clubhouse access to those contacts, they’ll get a notification when you join the app and a recommendation to follow you. Clubhouse also encourages you to connect your Twitter and Instagram accounts, which could be another way for you to find people (or people to find you). Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment on if or how the app does this, but it’s something to consider before you connect your social media accounts. To be clear, Clubhouse isn’t the only app that is overly aggressive with its connection recommendations. Plenty of social media platforms use algorithms that take various factors into account, including your personal data and your contacts, to suggest people you should friend or follow. Those algorithms are very powerful, and yet somehow not powerful enough to avoid making recommendations that are creepy. Remember all those stories about Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature that recommended psychiatrists to their patients or random people they passed by on the street to each other? Facebook admitted that it recommended people based on their contacts, even if they weren’t in yours. But Facebook, which is hardly a shining beacon of best practices when it comes to privacy, now has a bunch of settings and ways to keep your profile reasonably locked down if you want it to be. You also don’t have to link your phone number to your Facebook profile. Such privacy options don’t currently exist on Clubhouse. In fact, the only mention of privacy I could find on the app was a link to its privacy policy, which, for most of Thursday, looked like this: Clubhouse So informative. Clubhouse’s settings page appears to have some glitches. Sometimes the link led to a redirect to a real privacy policy, but most of the time it didn’t. This was also true for the What’s New, FAQ, Community Guidelines, and Terms of Service. (Clubhouse also didn’t respond to a request for comment on what was going on here.) While the app also has some measures to prevent abuse — the ability to block users, to make rooms private, and to report incidents — Clubhouse has been criticized for having poor or inadequate moderation tools that allow misinformation and hate speech to spread. The company says it’s working on improving them. Meanwhile, you can’t currently report potential violations of those terms without handing over your email address. It’s not clear why Clubhouse doesn’t have better options for users to manage their privacy or more information for users about how their data might be used or linked to them. The company is reportedly operating with a small staff, but it also has millions of users and millions of dollars worth of funding from major Silicon Valley venture capital firms, including Andreessen Horowitz, and a valuation of $1 billion. It’s not the first well-funded social media app to push the boundaries of data privacy. But you’d at least think Clubhouse would have learned from the unicorns that came before it. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 16 days ago on re/code
A health care workers shows a vaccination card to a recipient of the Covid-19 vaccine. | Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images From forged vaccine cards to fake appointments, here are the online Covid-19 scams to watch out for. Many Americans are eager to get the Covid-19 vaccine as quickly as possible. But that inevitably means there are scammers ready to use the internet to take advantage of these vaccine seekers to steal their money and personal information. Similar to earlier in the pandemic, when fraudsters flooded the internet with ads for sketchy “cures,” bogus Covid-19 tests, and scarce personal protective equipment, online schemers are now selling fake vaccine appointments and knockoff vaccine cards. (These cards document the date that vaccinated people received their doses, the manufacturer of their vaccine, and its batch number; they’re seen as a record of vaccination.) Vaccine schemes are alarming. In late January, one man in Washington state was arrested after advertising fake Covid-19 vaccines online for as much as $1,000, and even injected people with an unknown substance, according to the Department of Justice, which is investigating these types of fraud cases. “We’re not surprised scammers are taking advantage of this opportunity because each of the states are rolling out the vaccine a little bit differently,” Sandra Guile of the Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit that focuses on consumer and marketplace trust, told Recode. The organization has warned people that posting images of their vaccine cards on social media — in order to celebrate their inoculation — is only making things worse. Not only are these images making it easier to copy the cards, but social media users are also exposing their personal information and making themselves more vulnerable to identity theft. People are selling fake vaccine cards online The target audience for fake vaccine cards is people who think the cards might help them move around and travel more quickly — or avoid getting vaccinated. Tracy Walker, who lives in Hawaii, told Recode that one of her neighbors has been using their personal Facebook page to offer others fake vaccination cards, which were — according to the post, which was viewed by Recode — “[p]rinted on cardstock with laser.” Right now, these cards are primarily being used as a way for people to record their own vaccination histories, and the card does remind users to keep it handy. It’s possible that this card might be used as proof of inoculation for other purposes sometime in the future. Walker said she reported the post as “a fraud or scam” to Facebook, only to receive a notice that the post did not violate Facebook’s rules. She said she also reported the post to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her police department (who reported it to the state health department). The post is still up as of publication time. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment about this post. ”If that’s something you have to do to be able to move about your life, assume the scammers are going to create a scam around it,” says Kristin Judge, of the Cybercrime Support Network, pointing to both fake Covid-19 vaccination cards and fake Covid-19 test results that have popped up amid the pandemic. These schemes are showing up in different corners of the internet, including on eBay, in Google ads, and on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. On Twitter, Recode found at least one account purporting to sell vaccines and another selling vaccination cards. Twitter did not provide comment on these accounts. Chad Anderson, a senior researcher at the cybersecurity threat intelligence firm DomainTools, where he’s been regularly tracking vaccine-related websites throughout the pandemic, told Recode he thinks that the fake card business is only likely to bloom. He’s already seen them being advertised on everything from Shopify-supported shops to the dark web. “You can just go to Instagram and siphon off people’s batch numbers and just put it on your own fake vaccine card,” he told Recode. “In the US today, we are relying on these cards. They’re extremely easy to fake. Anyone can print one out with the right cardstock.” Authorities, including the CDC, told Recode they’re aware of the problem, and a spokesperson for the inspector general’s office at the Health and Human Services Department said it has received several reports of scams involving fraudulent vaccine cards. “It is unconscionable that scammers would prey on people’s fear and use the ongoing public health crisis for personal gain,” the representative told Recode. The World Health Organization added that fake vaccine paperwork can be especially dangerous because it’s unlikely to be reported to national health authorities, and can exacerbate the spread of disease. And these fakes aren’t just popping up on social media. On eBay, at least one seller had sold nearly 60 “4 packs” of fake Covid-19 vaccination cards (for $35 each), according to a posting on the site, which was viewed by Recode before the platform removed it. After Recode asked about them, eBay also took down another post selling fake “vaccination exemption” cards. Company spokesperson Ashley Settle said the company has been taking down vaccine card sales and is using both manual searches and technology to find the fakes when they’re posted to the site. Google also took down ads it was running for two websites that purported to sell such cards after Recode reached out to the company. One website using these ads offered a four-pack of Covid-19 vaccine cards for $50, while another claimed to sell a “proof card” for both Covid-19 vaccinations and antibodies. “Early on we implemented our sensitive event policy for Covid-19, blocking most ads referencing the virus, to protect people from bad actors attempting to capitalize on it,” a Google spokesperson told Recode, adding that the company is adapting its approach as it continues to intercept ads for scams. Some scammers are even calling up seniors in the US, requesting personal information in exchange for a special Covid-19 Medicare card — a card that is not a legitimate Medicare benefit — warned Jennifer Stewart, a senior director of fraud investigation at BlueCross BlueShield Massachusetts. Online vaccination scams are fueling theft of personal and financial information Fake vaccine cards are just one example of an array of online vaccine scams. Some schemes simply advertise fake vaccines on social media, notes Timothy Mackey, a UC San Diego professor who studies the online drug market. Other efforts involve fake vaccine appointment registration websites — and email phishing schemes that promise vaccine appointments that turn out to be fake — that exist to steal people’s money and personal information. “Some of them are directly trying to collect money from you,” explains Stewart. “Others are simply trying to collect your health insurance and/or financial information so that they can either bill your insurance for fraudulent treatments or prescriptions, or sell your information on the dark web, and there are huge networks on the dark web that sell this information.” “You’ll get to them and they might have the seal of the state on it. They’ll have information. They try to make them look as plausible as possible, though rarely do they exactly match the legitimate site,” she adds. The vaccine rollout varies widely depending on where you live, which can add a lot of confusion to the process and make it easier to fall victim to a scam. So as vaccinations continue in the United States, and even speed up, it’s important to keep your eyes open for potential scams and fakes, and avoid sharing personal information before double-checking the legitimacy of the website you’re on or an email you receive. There are things to watch for that the Federal Trade Commission says should give you pause. No one should be asking you for money to get the vaccine early — or reserving a spot on a waitlist — and you should avoid any vaccine offers that ask for a credit card number, bank account information, or your Social Security number. If you’re looking for a real vaccine appointment, and to check if you’re eligible, it’s best to visit your local public health department’s website and go from there. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 17 days ago on re/code
Clubhouse is currently an invite-only audio app, but influential entrepreneurs and investors are crowning it the next major social media network. | Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/Getty Images The beta version of the audio app is currently invite-only, but its exclusivity has generated a lot of public interest. The audio chat app Clubhouse is built for two types of people: the talkers and the listeners. Tesla founder Elon Musk is a talker. So is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Robinhood’s Vlad Tenev is a talker, as are many other influential Silicon Valley figures, like investors Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen, who have staked millions of dollars into Clubhouse’s success. A regular user can be a talker too, although there’s no promise anyone (besides a few friends) will show up and stick around. As a listener, though, the app offers a smorgasbord of chatrooms on virtually any topic you can think of: foreign language practice, wealth management, Instagram marketing tips, therapy, a 24/7 lo-fi music streaming service. Toggling between public rooms on the homepage is simple: A listener can quietly drop, already muted, into rows of audience members and tune into the unfolding conversation. The catch to Clubhouse is that it’s invite-only, at least in its current beta-testing phase. People have to receive an invitation from an existing user to unlock access to the platform, which is only available for download through the iOS App Store. (Clubhouse’s founders say they are working to scale the app for a general audience, including Android users, but their expansion timeline remains uncertain.) Despite these built-in functions geared toward exclusivity, the app carries significant potential for growth. Each new user is given four invites to hand out, and already there is an online marketplace for buyers and bidders eager to pay for one. More regular people — including international audiences across Europe and Asia — are now seeking entry following Elon Musk’s live talk on January 31, which maxed out the platform’s 5,000-person chat room capacity. Since then, Clubhouse has surpassed 3 million downloads, with an estimated user base of more than 2 million. These statistics are a promising sign for the fledgling audio platform, which was launched in March 2020. Influential entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are bullish on crowning Clubhouse the next major social network; it’s reportedly valued at $1 billion after its latest round of funding. The adoring hype from the tech world, however, has yet to reach most average Americans, who are less likely to be familiar with the platform since access is so limited. To put it into context, at 2 million users, Clubhouse is much smaller than behemoths like Facebook (2.8 billion global monthly active users, including Instagram and WhatsApp, which it owns), TikTok (1 billion), Twitter (330 million), and Snapchat (249 million). The app’s invite-only system could’ve siloed its burgeoning popularity within certain social circles, but exclusivity became crucial in cultivating general intrigue. Celebrities, Black creatives, and entertainers, for example, were early adopters of the app. So were Silicon Valley insiders, spurred by investor interest. The app’s most vocal converts believe Clubhouse is the future of audio-driven social media, once it becomes accessible to the public. Yet, the platform has not been immune to complaints of harassment, misinformation, and feeble content moderation that have afflicted the biggest social networks. Users are aware of these flaws, but for now, Clubhouse’s novelty has yet to fade. What is Clubhouse, and how does it work? Clubhouse is the brainchild of founders Rohan Seth and Paul Davison, who previously collaborated on Talkshow, a now-defunct app that allowed users to have a public text conversation that any number of people could view. Clubhouse was their “last try,” they claim, at building a social app that aimed to be “more human” and driven by conversations, rather than posts. Speaking events on the app are set in rooms, which are organized into a sort of virtual stage. The host and moderators — who are given prerogative to speak — control the flow of conversation, who gets to speak, and when. As a listener, you can use the “raise your hand” function, but the moderator is in charge of handing over the digital microphone, if they choose to. If you’re followed by the moderator or host, your avatar will be “seated” in a special section above general audience members, which makes chiming in much easier. And whereas these chatrooms are temporary one-offs, users can also join public and private clubs, which are loosely categorized into categories like “technology” or “wellness,” that frequently update their schedule of upcoming events. A screenshot of a Clubhouse room that plays lo-fi music. Vulture’s Craig Jenkins likened the app to “a never-ending trade convention … where the best time is had when you sneak off elsewhere with friends.” The experience on Clubhouse varies by room and subject matter, and can be comparable to tuning into an unedited podcast, an industry-specific panel, or a gossipy conference call. Like most social platforms (and professional conventions), Clubhouse is what you make of it and, ultimately, who you know. It’s also worth noting that the app is inaccessible to deaf people, and has yet to offer any sort of automatic captioning function. There is a veneer of professionalism from the get-go, even for general users. Popular hosts and speakers tend to have some level of social or professional clout, and large rooms are usually led by established creatives, investors, or entrepreneurs. There are spaces that are more entertaining, informational, or scandalous than others (users have unwittingly stumbled upon NSFW “moan rooms”), but the burden of discovery typically falls on the user. Unlike a platform like TikTok, which heavily relies on algorithmic prodding, Clubhouse is a simulation of existing social hierarchies, which sequesters people into communities they’re already familiar with. The app also encourages the use of full names, rather than usernames, thereby relying on existing threads of recognition to draw in listeners. Tech reporter Will Oremus argued that Clubhouse is the antithesis of Twitter based on how its social networks are assembled. “The structure of Twitter’s platform is essentially flat and open,” Oremus wrote, “in the sense that pretty much anyone can join, tweet, reply to anyone else, and have at least a remote chance to reach a massive audience.” Meanwhile, Clubhouse is more hierarchical and closed, even by predicating its early model on invitation. The appeal — and troubling reality — of hosting open conversations Authentic, nuanced conversation is billed as Clubhouse’s main appeal. Its founders believe that providing space for discussion can “bring people together” and effectively shatter the algorithmic echo chambers perpetuated by most popular platforms. A Bloomberg opinion article in December praised the app for its “niceness” and ability to “restore peaceful discourse and civility rather than exacerbate tensions.” In early February, Clubhouse made international headlines as Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Uighur users discussed topics that are prohibited in China, like the concentration camps in Xinjiang, garnering thousands of listeners. China soon blocked the app, but the rare instance of cross-border dialogue provided an optimistic pretense for the platform’s lofty goal: becoming the go-to public forum for global conversations and ideas. Clubhouse now blocked in China.The audio drop-in startup was rapidly gaining steam in China last week, the invitation-only US app allows users to listen to discussions n interviews in conference-call style online rooms, attracting users to conversations on a wide range of topics pic.twitter.com/gHKDwkLVUp— Eva 郑 عائشة (@evazhengll) February 8, 2021 The concept is intriguing, and big platforms are eyeing Clubhouse’s ascent. Twitter has hopped on the bandwagon by testing a similar chatroom-like feature called Spaces, and Facebook is rumored to be building a competing product. Yet, Clubhouse’s current format is purposefully limiting, even as more users join the platform. Conversation tends to remain civil — and arguably insulated — due to the level of control hosts and moderators can have over a room, down to who’s able to listen in. A moderator is intended to serve as a sort of micro-gatekeeper or community manager. Still, some critics are concerned about the possibility of institutional exclusion, and how existing biases are reinforced in the chatroom. On Twitter, the Information’s Jessica Lessin and New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz have argued that certain high-profile guests and hosts have a history of blocking journalists, notably women, which prevents reporters from listening in on potentially newsworthy Clubhouse conversations and shows. Then there’s the issue of moderation. Self-appointed moderators are not always equipped to handle issues like harassment, hate speech, or misinformation, and Clubhouse has yet to implement guardrails to curtail such behavior. (Users on the app can report harassment or speech that violates community guidelines, but there’s currently little by way of moderation tools available.) In September, a three-hour discussion on anti-Semitism in Black communities eventually devolved into anti-Semitic comments, which frustrated Jewish users who felt the event should’ve been more actively moderated. Critics are wary of the app’s tolerance for casual racism and misogyny; writer Nikki Onafuye recently wrote of how Clubhouse amplifies the toxic interactions Black women experience in their daily lives. Enters @joinClubhouse. Hears: 1) Non-Jewish folks redefining “antisemitism”, 2) Jews are the face of capitalism, 3) Jews are “weaponizing antisemitism”, 4) Non-Jews asking Jews to tap into unlimited emotional labor to educate. I’m DONE.— michaela ‍ (@MichaelaHirsh) September 29, 2020 The rampant racism, misogyny, and disinformation that plague major social platforms will doubtless migrate to Clubhouse as it gains more users. There are few available models of moderation on a chat app, however. The challenge lies in how interactions are ephemeral, unless a user records a conversation (an act that violates community guidelines). Misbehavior and disinformation can be difficult to document, and so far, complaints and controversy are usually relitigated on Twitter. There is also scrutiny as to who is allowed on the app. Far-right political figures like Roger Stone and Mike Cernovich are on the platform and building audiences, and some users are unhappy that alleged assaulters, like Tory Lanez and Russell Simmons, are participating in chats. Some skeptics are turned off by Clubhouse’s appeal to a certain type of user, namely the talkers — those who are extroverted, eager to learn, or interested in knowledge-sharing. “Clubhouse is the Linkedin newsfeed with audio,” joked one Twitter user. While those aren’t necessarily bad traits, having too many extroverted talkers could lead to unengaging or self-involved conversations, much like an off-topic conference call. According to the Information’s Sam Lessin, Clubhouse reproduces “the idle chatter of people in the real world,” which leads to lower-quality per-minute content than curated media. But real-life conversations also depend on factors like body language, eye contact, and other visual cues that involve both speaker and listener, none of which have, as yet, been replicated on the app. Clubhouse plans to invest in influencers, but a post-pandemic world could test users’ interest Audio-only media, such as podcasts or radio shows, tend to be highly scripted or narrative-driven with specific time allotments to keep listeners interested. On Clubhouse, the freewheeling conversations are the exact opposite. The reason to tune in, according to Sam Lessin, “is not for content but for who is speaking.” A major celebrity or politician could drive a burst of traffic to Clubhouse, but unless there’s a devoted base of long-term users, that could pose a problem for the app’s future. The company has expressed interest in investing in its creators by launching features like tipping, tickets, and subscriptions. The New York Times reported that Clubhouse is testing an invite-only creator pilot program with more than 40 influencers, some of whom host popular shows on the platform. This financial investment suggests that Clubhouse hopes to bolster its creators as unique personalities who could retain and grow audiences. But can the app be sustainable by investing in talkers, and trusting that regular users — the listeners — will regularly tune in? Clubhouse has, perhaps, unlocked a late-stage pandemic sense of unfettered FOMO, a feeling that’s been exacerbated by the lockdown. After nearly a year without the comforting routine of daily life, the internet has become many people’s crucial conduit for social interaction. Suddenly, an invite-only app comes along that allows major celebrities and out-of-reach personalities to casually converse with regular people. The idea might sound enticing to our gossip-starved ears. Now that the party has moved online, what else is there to do besides listen?

Read More...
posted 17 days ago on re/code
Jeff Bezos dedicated millions in 2020 to tackling climate change. | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images We need more transparency in the world of charity. America’s billionaire philanthropists gave away more of their fortunes during the Covid-19 pandemic than they ever have before. But there’s a catch — one that underscores just how hard it is to follow the money in the world of mega-charity. The 50 largest donors donated almost $25 billion to charity in 2020, according to the annual report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which offers the best yearly snapshot of the largest donations in America. Amid a historic health crisis that was a call to arms for the nonprofit sector — and during a renewed reckoning over racial inequities in the US — these billionaires made some of the largest donations they have ever made. The biggest donors gave away $16 billion in 2019. Jeff Bezos pledged $10 billion to combat climate change through a vehicle called the Bezos Earth Fund, one of the largest charitable commitments ever. MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’s ex-wife, donated almost $5 billion to hundreds of nonprofits. And Twitter founder Jack Dorsey set aside $1 billion worth of stock primarily to fund responses to the pandemic. 2020 was the first year with five $1 billion-plus commitments, according to the Chronicle (the other two came from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Nike founder Phil Knight.) Every year, the Chronicle attempts to meticulously monitor gifts, and therefore plays a key role in informing our democracy on questions like the best way to solve income inequality and whether to raise taxes. The publication collects available records and interviews philanthropists’ aides. But its work has self-acknowledged limits that illustrate a bigger trend: The lack of transparency in the philanthropic sector makes it difficult to come to a common set of facts to even debate those policy questions. For starters, the 50 biggest donors in 2020 would not have broken any records if the $10 billion commitment from Bezos — which is very different from the other donations — wasn’t included on the list. Bezos announced in February that he was promising that sum for grants but has not answered any details about the structure of that gift, including whether the money has been irrevocably set aside in some unique pool of money. The reason that matters is because the Chronicle’s list doesn’t always focus on donations to nonprofits. It sometimes prioritizes donations to charitable vehicles — such as foundations that in turn donate to nonprofits — as part of an admirable attempt to avoid double-counting. The $10 billion promise to the Bezos Earth Fund is counted as a donation to a charitable vehicle. But the fact is that we don’t even know where that $10 billion sits. Is the money actually placed in a charitable vehicle like a foundation, a donor-advised fund, or a limited liability company? Or is it more of a rhetorical pledge, similar to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s commitment in 2015 to set aside 99 percent of their money to philanthropy (and which wasn’t counted on the list)? We don’t know. Bezos’s representatives have consistently declined to share information on the Earth Fund’s structure. They didn’t return a Recode request for comment on Tuesday. And if you excluded the Bezos pledge, this year’s headlines about American billionaires’ generosity during the pandemic would look a lot different. “There are actually two related issues. One is that we don’t have a shared understanding of how to define and measure giving,” said Ben Soskis, a historian of big philanthropy. “The other is that a new crop of megadonors are embracing publicity in giving — but are doing so outside the bounds of traditional philanthropic organizations and so without any formal degree of accountability. The high profile philanthropic pledge is the embodiment of this problem. It divorces the moment of peak publicity from the opportunity for accountability.” Alternatively, analysts for the Chronicle or elsewhere could look at the amount of money that actually went out the door to nonprofits directly in a year. Bezos would get credit for his Earth Fund donating $790 million to climate groups. The $350 million that Zuckerberg and Chan donated to support American election officials would now be included, rather than being ruled out as a double-count. Bill and Melinda Gates, one of America’s most consistent biggest distributors of cash, would mostly get credit for the roughly $5 billion that their foundation donates each year — rather than just being tagged with the estimated $160 million that they personally donated to their foundation in 2020. There are pluses and minuses to that approach, which is taken by Forbes in its own philanthropy rankings: It would, in the eyes of some, rightly recognize philanthropists that get money out the door to nonprofits so that it could make a difference today, rather than parking the money in vehicles in order to address some future problem. This different approach would also more accurately reflect billionaires’ true, consistent philanthropic work, instead of inflating their ranking if one year they make a large, lump-sum donation to a foundation, and deflating their ranking when they don’t match it the next year. It would, however, pose its own complications, such as who exactly should get credit for money distributed from vehicles that have multiple funders. But there’s a bigger point here. As these huge sums above make clear, a small, arcane change in these methods could very well change our conclusions about billionaire philanthropy. This would all be for naught if philanthropy had a culture of transparency. Many philanthropists prefer to keep their donations anonymous, and some, like Bezos, seem to bristle at the notion of owing the public any information about their gifts (even though it offers tax advantages and can burnish their reputations.) It would also be for naught if there were stronger legal requirements in the sector: Many billionaires use LLCs or donor-advised funds that don’t have to file tax documents that would spell out where their money comes from or what it is spent on. The private foundations that do have to file these tax documents don’t do so until over a year later — long after these rankings come out — and have their own accounting tricks. And so we’re left with a patchwork system of transparency — dependent on what philanthropists voluntarily disclose and how exactly you choose to analyze the disclosures — that makes it almost impossible to objectively capture and understand billionaires’ charitable gifts. The conclusion may very well be that the wealthiest people in the world donate more to charity than we think. Some major philanthropists who don’t choose to prioritize or publicize donation figures, such as Laurene Powell Jobs, have never appeared on the Philanthropy 50 over the past two decades. But it’s essential to have a baseline of shared facts, because billionaire philanthropy is often used as a way to implicitly and explicitly justify American income inequality. Should there be a wealth tax? What types of charity should be tax-deductible? And, at a more basic level, does the US economy just plain work? These are policy questions that people disagree on. But it’s hard to even stage the debate right now. So the figures and the headlines really matter — at least until the culture and the laws catch up.

Read More...
posted 18 days ago on re/code
Amanda Northrop/Vox Amid the pandemic, lots of people are turning to Nextdoor for help. That’s not always what they find. David Leblond, a computer programmer based in Durham, North Carolina, decided in December to post on his local Nextdoor feed about participating in a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine trial. He was almost positive he didn’t get the placebo, and he thought talking about his experience on the hyper-local neighborhood social media platform could reassure people in his community about the new vaccine. “So you can read this knowing that you know at least one person who got it and is fine,” concluded his post on his local community feed. “I hope that eases your mind a little bit! Yay science!” Most of his neighbors responded politely and thanked him for sharing. But the comments section of the post quickly devolved into an aggressive argument. Someone accused him of trying to force people to get vaccinated. One user suggested the vaccine was a tool for “population control,” and another user said that “a new vaccine in less than 1 year” frightened her. Some of the more “out there” comments on his post have been removed, he says, and one neighbor apologized. But other posts stayed up: As of February, LeBlond says there are still posts expressing skepticism about the vaccine on his thread and others. Leblond is one of eight Nextdoor users from across the country who told Recode about similar frustrations with the platform. Many said they went to Nextdoor to meet neighbors and get updates about local events that they couldn’t find on sites like Facebook. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they thought Nextdoor could help keep their communities healthy and safe by being a reliable source of local information about vital topics like quarantining and vaccinations at a time when local media is shrinking or shutting down entirely. But they say Nextdoor is letting them down. They say their local sites can be taken over by a loud minority that push misinformation about Covid-19, vaccines, and masks. Multiple Nextdoor users told Recode the platform’s reporting tools and community moderators aren’t effectively doing their jobs — and that some even exacerbate the problems — making Nextdoor fall far short of its promise to be a neighborly social network. Nextdoor wanted to help in the pandemic, but misinformation ran rampant At the beginning of the pandemic, Nextdoor users — like everyone else — were figuring out how to deal with Covid-19. Much of that discussion was productive and generally positive: Neighborhoods used the platform to coordinate what songs to sing from their windows during lockdown and offered to help each other out, says Jenn Takahashi, who runs the popular Best of Nextdoor account on Twitter that aggregates some of the funniest posts on the platform. Before Covid-19, Nextdoor was widely used throughout the United States. But the pandemic had people turning to the site more often, as they spent more time at home and the app became a source of local information and discussion about the pandemic. In April, Nextdoor reported that it saw a dramatic increase in daily active users — more than 60 percent since January — on the site across age groups. As of February, more than 222,000 neighborhoods were registered on the site throughout the country, up from the more than 135,000 that Nextdoor had advertised on its website in the spring of 2017. As more people began discussing Covid-19 on Nextdoor, the company — similar to platforms like Facebook and Twitter — expanded its moderation policies surrounding the pandemic. Unlike other violations of Nextdoor rules, which are reported to community moderators, Covid-19 misinformation that’s flagged by users goes straight to Nextdoor’s hired support staff. The company also added an interstitial “reminder” that encouraged users to cite accurate sources before posting. But Nextdoor’s neighbor-oriented moderation — which relies on a combination of unpaid neighbor “leads” who help run local communities and Nextdoor content moderation staff — didn’t seem prepared for the problems that arose as discourse about the pandemic and how to respond to it became increasingly politicized. Nextdoor’s neighborhood moderators are often selected by invitations from other leads, and the first person to “found” their community’s digital presence on the platform can automatically become a lead. Nextdoor did not provide additional details about the size of its content moderation team or the technology it uses, although it emphasized its work to elevate content from public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Nextdoor tried to encourage more neighborly behavior, too. In March, the company expanded the availability of its group feature, which basically functions like Facebook groups. It also launched a “help map” inside its app, which allowed users to flag in their profile that they were available to help neighbors who might need assistance amid the pandemic. Despite these changes, misinformation and resistance to public health measures, including vaccination, still show up on Nextdoor. “It’s just the kind of classic stuff that you probably saw on other social media,” Mark Boslough, a physicist who uses Nextdoor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and who took over a coronavirus-focused citywide group early on in the pandemic, told Recode in December. “Like, ‘It’s not that bad,’ ‘It’s the flu,’ or ‘It’s intentionally created by the Chinese’ or just calling it the ‘Wuhan flu’ or the ‘China flu.’” When one of his neighbors posted an image suggesting that Covid-19 was being exaggerated right before an election and that the spread of the coronavirus was subsiding, Boslough told the neighbor to delete the post (and accused the neighbor of lying). He also wrote to Nextdoor’s support staff, demanding that the “dangerous spread of misinformation needs to be stopped NOW.” The next day, Boslough found that he had been temporarily suspended for violating Nextdoor’s rules about being “helpful, not hurtful.” Nextdoor would not comment on individual users but emphasized the site has rules in place against profanity, over-posting, and personal disputes. Boslough, who is part of an informal effort focused on getting Nextdoor users to listen to science experts, isn’t alone in his frustration with the platform. “I really thought it was such a great, great site. I absolutely loved it,” Serena Spencer, an attorney who has used Nextdoor for about three years in Pasadena, California, told Recode. “And then Covid happened.” She recalls posting a pattern for homemade masks in her community’s feed, at the start of the pandemic in March, only to receive a slew of angry comments in response. She says that misinformation on the site has moved in “peaks and valleys”; at the beginning of the pandemic, posts would be removed more often, but now people have taken an “agree to disagree” approach on threads about topics like wearing a mask. Spencer says the environment on the app got even worse following the police killing of George Floyd and that some neighbors began to post racist comments during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, adding that she’s one of the few Black leads in her area. She told Recode that while she thinks Nextdoor can be a useful tool, she’s concerned about the way it handles content that includes misinformation and hateful posts from neighbors. Spencer also says that Nextdoor has wrongly reported or suspended her several times, and that she’s had to appeal to get her account back. “There is a way for it to be a really, really great resource,” she told Recode, but warned that “the way it’s being moderated right now is dangerous.” Misinformation on Nextdoor fuels more aggressive fights between neighbors How pervasive misinformation is on Nextdoor is difficult to measure: Nextdoor is segmented by design, and what appears in one user’s local feed could be entirely different from what’s in the feed of someone living elsewhere. But some users Recode spoke to say that misinformation is a rampant problem that’s turned their local Nextdoor communities into stressful, contentious spaces. Joanne Martinez, who uses Nextdoor in Kona, Hawaii, pointed to one user who called Covid-19 vaccination “a large Darwinian I.Q. Test - survival of the intellectually fittest.” Another member of the same community feed made more alarming comments, pushing the false idea that Covid-19 had a 99.99 percent survival rate and then floating that people should “come back stronger and infect all the old weak people.” (The CDC says that eight of 10 people who have died of Covid-19 in the US are over 65, and contracting the illness can still leave people of all ages with long-term symptoms and side effects.) That wasn’t all: The same person posted that if “I could infect another person and kill them that would be the ultimate power,” later adding: “it’s all your fault boomers maybe you deserve to die.” Tracy Walker, who is in the same Nextdoor feed as Martinez, told Recode it took about two and a half weeks for that content to be removed from the platform. How Nextdoor moderates its content also makes things murkier. Nextdoor says that it uses both technology and user-generated flags to identify Covid-19 misinformation. The platform also relies on neighbors who have taken up the job of reporting on other users for spreading misinformation. “We’re committed to the safety of our members and are taking proactive measures to help our members stay safe and have access to real-time, trusted information from credible sources,” a Nextdoor spokesperson for the company told Recode in December. In 2021, the platform did make one major change: It stopped recommending political groups, following reporting from several outlets, including Recode, that highlighted racism, conspiracy theories, and toxic political fights on the platform. This approach of combining technology, staff, and unpaid content moderators to identify and report problematic content can mean that Nextdoor sometimes punishes users who say they’re beating back misinformation. “Nextdoor having a rule against misinformation in the wrong hands can backfire on the people who are trying to debunk this information,” Boslough, the physicist in New Mexico, told Recode. According to emails he was sent from Nextdoor’s moderation staff (which he shared with Recode), Boslough in November was reprimanded by Nextdoor’s content moderation staff for violating the platform’s “public shaming” rules, after he warned against “anti-science, anti-mask, anti-social trolls” making untrue claims and spreading conspiracy theories. In December, his account was temporarily disabled for violating Nextdoor’s “ranting” and “profanities” rules after he emphatically told nonessential workers to “stay the hell home” and to strictly observe social distancing measures. Stephen Floor, a professor who uses the platform in California, says reporting coronavirus misinformation on Nextdoor can be a frustrating cycle of being urged to continually report content. Even if individual pieces of misinformation are taken down, accounts that share “chronic” amounts of misinformation remain on the site, and people have also used the platform to oppose lockdown and stay-at-home measures. Nextdoor says that misleading claims about Covid-19 measures like social distancing or wearing masks do violate its rules, but it’s not clear how the site, in particular, handles organizing against these measures. As vaccines are distributed, some Nextdoor users are creating a warped local reality As a self-identified “hyperlocal” platform, Nextdoor tried to provide users with a unique view — and news — about what’s happening in their communities. The company has worked to provide local agencies, including public health agencies, with a megaphone to broadcast information to communities, and its CEO Sarah Friar has even floated that, with the decline of local media, the Nextdoor feed could be a platform for updates about local politics. Lauren Tostenson, who works at the public information office for El Paso County in Colorado, says Nextdoor users seem to be “a more dedicated group of people,” and don’t seem to visit the site specifically to start fights. “I think people take Nextdoor more seriously than Facebook,” she told Recode. But others say the local nature of the app is what makes it challenging. “They’re trying to walk a fine line of being helpful without putting them in a place where they could be held responsible for any incorrect information,” notes Will Payne, a Rutgers University professor who has studied Nextdoor. “That’s a tricky line to walk.” Payne points out that while Nextdoor can give users some local information, it can create a warped sense of local reality, and there’s no guarantee it’s accurately conveying the severity of the pandemic in local communities. Ultimately, a small minority of users who question or outright oppose the vaccine threaten to drown out accurate information about the vaccine being spread through its platform. Public health agencies, for instance, are already using Nextdoor to announce their vaccine distribution plans, including keeping locals up to date on vaccine distribution, connecting locals with experts, and warning about potential vaccine scams. Nextdoor would not comment on whether or how it’s changing its approach during the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. But amid the ongoing inoculation campaign, the platform has also become a resource for many who are trying to get vaccinated. Several users Recode spoke to said that in recent weeks, the platform has seen a surge in people desperate for more information on where and how to get vaccinated, and neighbors trading information about how to find an available dose. Ultimately, that Nextdoor is a local platform means it’s more closed off than a social network like Twitter, which makes it harder to track how misinformation can spread on the platform. But it’s also made the platform more useful — and given people an incentive to stay. “It’s one thing when you’re on Facebook and nobody knows who each other is on Facebook,” says LeBlond, of North Carolina. “But Nextdoor, it’s your neighbors. I don’t want to start fighting with my neighbors.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 18 days ago on re/code
Vox Media This season of Land of the Giants tells the inside story of Google’s journey to become one of the most powerful companies in the world. It’s hard to imagine the internet today without Google. From search to YouTube to Android to Google Maps, billions of us rely on its products every single day. Google is reliable, simple, and most of its products don’t cost money to use. We use it without even thinking about it when we open our web browser or pick up our phone. The Silicon Valley giant is so powerful that the US government is accusing it of being a monopoly. Politicians as well as the public have begun questioning if the company exerts too much control over how we find information online. Data privacy advocates worry that Google collects too much information about our digital lives. And some of the company’s own rank-and-file employees have even staged a rebellion, demanding more of a say in key decisions about how the company does business. But it wasn’t always this way. Google’s rise was anything but inevitable. In fact, in the late ’90s, when Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin started the company at the same time they were graduate students known for rollerblading down the halls of Stanford’s computer science department, it was hard to get anyone to take them seriously. And even after Google proved the skeptics wrong by coming up with a better way to navigate the internet, the company had to fight at every turn to remain relevant. In this season of Vox Media’s Land of the Giants podcast series, we’re telling the story of Google’s great innovations, its battles with fellow tech giants like Apple and Microsoft, and how it is grappling with organizing the world’s information in 2021 — when the very nature of what is fact and what is false is up for debate. We talked to Google’s current leaders, early employees, proponents, and critics to look at how Google became such an important part of our lives. And we examine how a company whose key corporate motto used to be “don’t be evil” is facing accusations internally and externally that it’s strayed from that path as it’s grown its business. The first episode of Land of the Giants: The Google Empire comes out on February 16. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to the trailer below.

Read More...