The most important person entering US government you’ve never heard of

I solemnly swear to explain what I do in my new job when the moment is right.
I solemnly swear to explain what I do in my new job when the moment is right.
Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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The first week on the job for Nicole Wong, dubbed by many as the US’s first chief privacy officer, has been fairly, well, private. The White House has named Wong, 44, a former top lawyer for Google and Twitter, as the new deputy US chief technology officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the appointment came with little fanfare or official communication about her role, even though Wong could have influence far and wide—not only on internet issues, but on foreign policy, trade and human rights. Here’s why.

Wong is serving as a top deputy to the White House’s chief technology officer, Todd Park, according to OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss. Beyond that, Weiss wouldn’t elaborate on what Wong will be doing. He did say, however, that characterizing her simply as a “chief privacy officer” doesn’t fully describe her role.

In the very least, Wong’s appointment appears to be part of an effort by the Obama administration to reassure citizens that their privacy rights will be protected. The White House has been under the gun about the government’s role in data mining and surveillance, thanks in part to controversy over its PRISM spying program. “The fact that this position exists reflects the importance we attach to the issue,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week. “I would point you to everything I just said about the president’s views on the balance that we need to strike between our national security interests and protecting the American people, as well as protecting our values and our privacy.”

Wong has a stellar reputation for aggressively protecting individual privacy rights, earned during many battles she fought against the Bush and Obama administrations during her eight years as Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel. She joined Twitter as its legal director just seven months ago. Friends and former colleagues say she has mastered the complexities of cutting-edge internet and social media technologies and how the law should or shouldn’t apply to them.

But beyond individual privacy, Wong’s real passion and expertise is in using companies like Google, Twitter and YouTube (which Google bought in 2006) to promote freedom and democracy and fight repression and censorship. At Google in particular, she fought against more than 25 countries, including China, Turkey and Pakistan, that tried to limit the flow of information and videos as a way to stifle dissent and free speech.

2008 New York Times Magazine article on “Google’s Gatekeepers” detailed Wong’s work in preventing autocratic regimes from blocking access to protest videos on YouTube. She also wielded enormous power over free expression by determining what controversial material could appear on Google.com and on the local search engines that Google operates in dozens of countries. By doing so, the article said, Wong and her team “have arguably more influence over the contours of online expression than anyone else on the planet.”

That year, Google, along with Yahoo and Microsoft, launched the Global Network Initiative in conjunction with internet companies, human rights groups, investors and academics. The initiative advocated for collective action and economic leverage to force governments into guaranteeing free expression online. Based on the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the group established a uniform code of conduct on freedom of expression and privacy for internet companies and governments to follow.

In 2010, Wong appeared before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing titled, “The Google Predicament: Transforming U.S. Cyberspace Policy To Advance Democracy, Security and Trade.” In lengthy testimony, she laid out a four-point plan for how the US government should work hand-in-hand with internet companies.

Here’s her verbatim testimony:

  • First and foremost, the U.S. government should promote internet openness as a major plank for our foreign policy.  The free flow of information is an important part of diplomacy, foreign assistance, and engagement on human rights.
  • Second, internet censorship should be part of our trade agenda because it has serious economic implications.  It tilts the playing field towards domestic companies and reduces consumer choice.  It affects not only U.S. and global Internet companies, but also hurts businesses in every sector that use the internet to reach customers.
  • Third, our government and governments around the world should be transparent about demands to censor or request information about users or when a network comes under attack.  This is a critical part of the democratic process, allowing citizens to hold their governments accountable.
  • Finally, Google supports the commitment of Congress and the administration to provide funds to make sure people who need to access the internet safely have the right training and tools.

Now that Wong has the ear of the US president, who is following these issues closely, she may have room to run with her passions. Her job is behind-the-scenes but can be influential, according to Andrew McLaughlin, the US deputy chief technology officer for internet policy from 2009 to 2011, who is now the CEO of the social news website Digg. “By executive order, the CTO is the principal on a lot of policy committees,’’ and the CTO’s deputies are given a lot of authority, said McLaughlin, a friend of Wong’s from their six years together as top lawyers for Google. Among other accomplishments, McLaughlin and his successor, Daniel Weitzner, led the White House’s efforts on a consumer privacy bill of rights that grants consumers internet-surfing protections such as a “do not track” capability, a technology adopted by web browsers to blocks advertisers from using cookies to track internet users.

Wong’s remit is broader than McLaughlin’s and Weitzner’s, according to the White House, which says it will make her available to the media at some later date, and explain her portfolio more explicitly then. In the meantime, Wong will be doing what she does best: keeping things private. In a recent tweet, she said only that, “It’s official! Thrilled to join @whitehouseostp as Deputy US CTO. It’s an honor to serve with such a talented and dedicated team.”