Van life: How to work from an RV – Protocol

Working from a van isn’t for everybody. But here’s how to decide if you can make it work for you.
People are still figuring work-from-van out.
Matthew Bird never wants to go back to corporate office life. He used to work for a firm helping Microsoft design live events, and before that, he worked as a designer for Amazon and Target. Like many, he lost his job during the pandemic and hit the road for a cross-country driving trip. It was while hiking Big Bend that his partner turned to him and said, “Let’s live full time on the road.”
They moved out of their house in Seattle, bought a cargo van and spent six months transforming it into a mobile home — those quick #vanlife TikTok transitions mask how hard this process really is. Bird works as an independent design contractor, and his partner Nicole Koleshis runs a yoga business virtually. “We can be flexible,” Bird said. “Are you looking for a change of scenery? Do you want to go do something? You have the freedom to do that.”

We’re used to these kinds of stories at this point in the pandemic. Digital workers have taken their companies’ remote work policies and run with them, all the way across the country. The unpredictability of the pandemic has, until now, kept the office return date out of reach. With a dramatic drop in cases, though, tech companies are setting return-to-office dates again. Apple just announced it will require in-person work starting April 11. Bird acknowledged that for full-time tech workers, the van lifestyle might become impractical.
But despite company plans, our changing attitudes and ideas about work remain. The van/RV lifestyle is very much in the zeitgeist. Some, like Rock CEO Kenzo Fong, have fully embraced it, experimenting with synchronous and asynchronous methods of working. “The RV industry itself has been blowing up; everyone wants to be out in an RV,” said Paige Bouma, executive vice president at Trader Interactive, the parent company of RV Trader. RV Trader polled over 2,100 people last week and found that 44% work from their RV more than 20 weeks out of the year.
As expected, people are still figuring work-from-van out. Protocol has rounded up some advice for those hoping to embark on their own van or RV journeys.
The most important aspect of working long term from a mobile home: planning ahead. There are the practical lifestyle obstacles you have to think through: health care, meal planning, showering. Rather than building out a van from scratch, you might want to rent an RV for a shorter period of time to test the lifestyle out.
WiFi and cell service are unreliable when you’re on the road. Setting up a mobile hotspot is a given, but you should also suss out your location’s signal and your remaining data well before an important call. You’ll need to plan around the schedules of others in your van as well. This was the biggest headache for Bouma, who spent six weeks in an RV with her family.
“How many people are going to be able to utilize that WiFi before it starts to be super slow and laggy?” Bouma said. “That definitely caused us some issues and some concerns.”
Hardly any job requires printed-out documents anymore. But if you do need a printer, Bouma said scouting the closest FedEx is your best bet.
Photo: Matt Bird
The exterior of Matthew Bird and Nicole Koleshis’ van.
Meetings are the hardest aspect of working from a mobile home. If your job requires you to be online and in calls all the time, van life probably isn’t for you. Bouma recommends hopping on calls 10 minutes early to make sure everything works. Koleshis manages yoga instructors from the road and always asks if they want to meet on Zoom or over the phone. They choose voice calls most of the time, which is easier for Koleshis.
Koleshis has found that managing people remotely from a van helps her business. She says her team of contracted yoga instructors has become very self-sufficient. “They’re more motivated to make these classes their own while they’re still working for Seattle Kids Yoga,” Koleshis said. “Because I’m not there, there’s more of a sense of ownership over what they’re doing.”
Staying motivated when you’re in a beautiful locale is tough, Bird said. He and Koleshis have taken their van to some incredible places, like Sedona with its otherworldly red rocks. “You’d rather just be out hiking or swimming or surfing or snowboarding, whatever it is,” Bird said. “It’s kind of hard to separate work and life. It’s really a working life.”
To tackle this, Koleshis recommends setting daily work goals. Avoid cramming too much into a day, Koleshis said. She always aims to accomplish three big tasks, and factors in the everyday life stuff that comes with living in a van (getting gas or emptying compost, for example).
Asynchronous work is much better suited for this kind of life. Bird has friends who attempted mobile work but found themselves sitting in Walmart parking lots all the time, dependent on their signal. Working from a van both requires and provides flexibility. Bird recognizes the benefits that come with in-person work — even with the van, he’s traveled to several work sessions to meet with others in his field.
But mandatory, regimented in-person work is not something he’s interested in. Instead, he likes to wake up with the sun and feel more “in tune with the natural rhythms of nature.”
“I’m trying to slow down, take my time and not rush with work or life,” Bird said.
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Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She’s a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school’s independent newspaper. She’s based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.
Amp is Amazon’s answer to Clubhouse, Greenroom and Spaces, and it could shake up the industry.
Amazon’s long-term vision for Amp is roughly the size of the radio industry.
David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol’s editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.
Amazon is entering the live-audio wars with a new app called Amp. The app, launching in beta on iOS on Tuesday, is fairly straightforward: It allows people to host their own radio-style show, with access to millions of songs free of charge. When you open the app, Amp will recommend a few live shows you might like. Hosts can take calls, switch between music and talking and generally feel like an old-school DJ.
Amazon is entering a suddenly crowded space. Spotify’s Greenroom, Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are all trying to build the future of audio chat; Apple is still investing heavily in Apple Music 1; and Spotify has also been rolling out features like The Get Up: a morning show that sounds an awful lot like drive-time radio. And, of course, there are the « radio on the internet » companies like TuneIn. But by combining features from all those apps, Amazon hopes it can build something even bigger.

All these companies see the same opportunity in audio: a medium that’s easier to create and consume than video, but feels uniquely intimate and human to the audience. As radio ad dollars move to the internet, there’s also a huge advertising business to be won, and Amazon just happens to be a booming advertising business already.
Amazon’s long-term vision for Amp is roughly the size of the radio industry. In the long run, Amp VP John Ciancutti imagines, Amp might be home to talk shows, call-in shows, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”-style game shows, and everything else you might find while flipping through radio stations. Just a modernized version of that. « If you created radio for the first time today, » he said, « you wouldn’t build radio towers and giant recording rooms that cost $50,000 to build, and go through this heavyweight process to pick the one creator who’s going to get to run a show at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays. You’d build it so anybody with a phone in their hand could be a DJ. »
For now, though, music is the thing. Amazon hopes to entice people with shows like Nicki Minaj’s “Queen Radio” — which is rebooting on Amp after a run on Beats 1 — along with shows from Pusha T, Tinashe, Travis Barker, Lindsey Stirling and a host of other A-list artists. But Ciancutti said he hopes the real appeal isn’t the star power but the accessibility: « It’s really the everyday creators who will then create and teach us what’s working well for them, » he said. « That’s really what we want. » Making it easy for creators to start a show, and for listeners to find them, is the key to getting this right.
Focusing on music helps Amazon in another way, too: It makes it much easier to categorize and recommend shows. As creators build their playlists before going live, the service gets a strong signal of what kind of show it’s going to be and can recommend it more accurately to listeners. Clubhouse and other services have struggled with discovery because shows are hard to categorize and host-provided metadata is often lacking. Amazon can at least confidently say you’ll like the songs, even if you hate the DJ. (And it’s really, really hoping you don’t hate the DJ.)

Ciancutti cautioned several times that this is early days for Amp. The team is thinking about how creators might get paid on the platform, but hasn’t settled on anything. You’ll be able to use Amp everywhere, he said, but for now there’s only an iPhone app. There’s no recording or on-demand functionality, but Ciancutti said he could see that coming later. Even the interface is still hotly debated internally: Should audio start playing as soon as you open the app, a la TikTok, or should you tap into a show in order to hear it? The app currently makes you tap, but Ciancutti seemed torn.
One thing the team has been thinking about in the early days is content moderation. The service’s guidelines are easily accessible from any show page, as are easy reporting mechanisms, and an Amp operations team is monitoring things around the clock. Amazon being Amazon, it’s also building machine-learning tools that can start to understand shows and problems automatically. Still, audio moderation is hard, and it’s even harder live. Ciancutti said he’s hoping to get lots of feedback in the app’s first few days, good and bad alike.
With the full resources of Amazon behind it, Amp appears to have a real chance to combine the high-end radio feel of Apple Music 1 with the creator-driven vibe of Spaces or Greenroom. But there’s still a big question lingering: Can this industry worm its way into users’ daily lives? Clubhouse spiked during a pandemic-driven lockdown and faded as people went back outside. Radio’s power comes largely from its captive audience — people in their cars with nothing to do but twist the knob until something comes on — and even podcasts are often used as a background activity while doing something else. Can Amp turn its shows into appointment listening? Can anyone?
« Daily habits are super hard to change, » Ciancutti said. He’d know: He was an early engineer at Netflix and watched firsthand as it tried to shake up the TV world. « We’re on a journey that takes a long time. » The radio industry is more than 120 years old, he said. He’s hoping to disrupt it a little faster than that.

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol’s editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.
Today’s job landscape is challenging for organizations looking to recruit and retain top tech talent. Recent labor trends, many of which are fueling The Great Resignation, have shown leaders across industries that their employees are searching for more. In addition to conversations around compensation and work conditions, they want opportunities to grow professionally and to level up their careers.
The tech industry continues to face a persistent talent shortage, and exacerbating this challenge is the increasing difficulty for organizations to retain their current workforce. A recent survey reported that 72% of respondents working in IT were planning to quit their jobs in the next 12 months. Additionally, another survey of technology executives shows that tech executives believe finding qualified talent is their biggest current challenge.
How can organizations keep their technology talent happy and engaged? How can they not only attract, but also retain top-level technology talent so their companies can continue innovating and delivering value to customers? Technology organizations need to look internally to find the talent they seek by upskilling and reskilling their existing tech workforce. For this vision to become a reality, organizations must focus on being creators, rather than consumers, of talent.

I’d like to share three examples of why companies must shift from simply consuming talent to creating a talent base that will carry them into the future.
Building winning teams may be the most difficult task for any business leader. This is especially true for building technology teams, where the competition for talent has never been more fierce.
1-800-Contacts is an excellent example of a company that recognized the challenge of finding qualified tech talent to fill its open tech roles and created an innovative solution to combat the problem. As the competition to hire tech talent increased, the company decided to implement a program that focused on upskilling from within the organization. To accomplish this, they created their CTAC University training program, and partnered with Pluralsight to create programs with which they could upskill, reskill and onboard technology workers with speed.
As part of the program, 1-800-Contacts created a formalized pathway for employees from across the business to join the company’s technology organization. As a result, the company has been able to create new career pathways for top performers, retain institutional knowledge and create a new pool of candidates to address tech worker shortages. The company is taking call-center employees that are brought into the company culture and turning them into software engineers and IT experts.
One of the most common themes we see when working with companies looking to develop their workforce is that technology innovation is changing so rapidly that it’s difficult for tech teams to keep pace. The most successful companies counter this by developing a culture focused on skill development that maps to their organizational goals.
Accenture recognized the pace of tech innovation and the need to build technology acumen across its organization. Accenture partnered with Pluralsight to develop its “Technology Quotient,” or TQ program, to address skills and knowledge gaps and ensure its teams had the tools to get the most out of technology. TQ helps build tech fluency across the organization and keeps all team members (tech and non-tech) engaged and up to speed on the rapidly changing tech landscape.

Since its launch less than two years ago, Accenture has used TQ to upskill more than 100,000 people. And it’s accomplished this incredible feat in a remote work environment. The program’s customized learning paths allow for collaboration between team members at different levels, helping to grow tech skills at scale within the organization.
One of the biggest lessons that we’re learning as companies vie for top tech talent is that technologists want to feel engaged and have the tools and programs at their disposal to grow. Tech workers feel more engaged when they’re given opportunities to learn and develop. Pluralsight’s recent State of Upskilling report indicated that more than half of the technologists surveyed value opportunities to grow professionally more than they value competitive compensation.
When workers aren’t engaged, companies can suffer the consequences. Workers with greater institutional knowledge are harder to replace and losing them can derail project timelines and product launches. Losing a technical or senior employee can cost up to 150% of that employee’s salary, according to Built In.
Manulife is a shining example of an organization that embraced a culture of upskilling to keep its technology teams happy and engaged while driving innovation. Manulife is working to break down the “myth” that top talent comes only in the form of the “7-year veteran engineer.” Instead, it wants to be an example: that you can hire junior talent, grow that talent within your organization and create a talent pipeline that serves the business for years to come. The company created several programs to assist its 10,000 engineers as they develop the technology acumen and skills they need to accomplish the company’s most important technology initiatives. These programs include a comprehensive upskilling program as well as an onboarding process that they call “Manulife University,” which helps get their new tech talent up to speed quickly.

During the onboarding process, Manulife measured the time it took for its engineers to get up to 100 lines of code. It saw that engineers who were able to get up to speed more quickly reported higher job satisfaction and generated more referrals for new talent.
These companies exemplify how to address one of the biggest problems in our industry. As organizations grapple with finding tech talent in a market that has too few qualified candidates to fill roles, resourceful organizations understand that if you can’t find it, you must build it. It’s these organizations that will win as we push into an increasingly digital world.
Zoom towns and the remote-work boom might be overstated.
Regional tech hubs like San Francisco, Seattle and New York actually expanded their share of tech jobs during the pandemic.
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
For all the hullabaloo that San Francisco is over — long live “Zoom towns” and the rise of remote work — the reality is much more mixed, according to a new report from Brookings Institution.
Brookings found that, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, regional tech hubs like San Francisco, Seattle and New York actually expanded their share of tech jobs during the pandemic.
“Anybody who thinks that the big tech hubs are sad and closing down is wrong,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at Brookings Metro.
Muro ascribed the continued dominance of regional tech superpowers like the Bay Area to the fact that they’re still “crucial” to early-stage business development and R&D work for startups. These major cities are often where the corporate research labs and areas for collaboration are. As tech companies mature, that’s when they start to recruit elsewhere.
Graph: Brookings Institution
That doesn’t mean the rest of the U.S. missed out on the action. The report also found that employment growth increased in midsized and small cities, including Atlanta, St. Louis and Birmingham.

People are overemphasizing the remote-work boom, according to Muro. In his opinion, the shift to smaller cities in the South and Midwest is more likely driven by the industry’s desire to source more diverse talent. Some of the cities with the biggest rise in employment growth compared to pre-pandemic include Atlanta and Birmingham, both known for their technical talent and proximity to HBCUs and other respected public universities, as well as a high quality of life and decent weather.
“I think that’s really an attraction for a sector that is under pressure to show progress on diversity,” he said.
Major tech companies like Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft have recently opened offices in Atlanta, which in recent years has become a major magnet for tech companies looking to invest in Black talent.
Companies are “trying to have it both ways: maintaining core activities in the superstar hubs, but also trying to follow workers with remote work offerings or creating new offices in new places,” Muro said.
Despite rumors that cities like New York are in trouble in the wake of the remote-work boom, companies like Google are investing in expensive new real estate and calling their employees back to the office. Rents have soared back to pre-pandemic heights, and in some cases, surpassed their pre-pandemic levels.
Graph: Brookings Institution
Unlike most research on geographic shifts in employment trends, the report from Brookings did not rely on real estate or survey data. Instead, it analyzed The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages as well as job postings data.
Muro characterized the shift in tech employment trends as a “winner takes most” dynamic accompanied by a modest “rise of the rest” scenario.
Time will tell how things shake out. The industry is at a “juncture,” and it would take a couple of years to determine whether these shifts are a temporary disruption or an inflection point, according to Muro. That being said, he “would never bet against the big hubs.”

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Apple is fighting tooth and nail to keep 30% App Store fees. Its tussle with Dutch regulators shows how it plans to combat forthcoming EU and U.S. regulation.
Apple’s response to the Dutch antitrust order seems to be a preview of things to come.
Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He’s based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.
Apple recently received its sixth consecutive 5 million euro fine for failing to comply with a Dutch antitrust ruling.
The Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) sought to give dating app developers in the Netherlands access to third-party payment options. In theory, this would allow developers to circumvent Apple’s payment system and 30% commission. App Store fees are estimated to have generated upward of $70 billion in revenue for Apple last year.
Apple claims it complies with the law, but it still charges developers a “reduced rate” of 27% on third-party payments. To use third-party payment providers, developers must also create a new version of their apps for the Dutch market. And Apple sticks a warning on apps with third-party payment access, telling users: “This app does not support the App Store’s private and secure payment system.”
At the end of February, Apple Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer sent a letter to Dutch authorities arguing that its existing situation is fully compliant with the law. Andeer made no mention of the 27% fee on third-party payments. Instead, the letter focused on the issue of Apple requiring developers to make new versions of their apps for the Dutch market. Andeer claimed this requirement is “not costly or difficult for a developer,” and that it is necessary for Apple to comply “with its legal obligations in the Netherlands while at the same time having the ability to maintain its standard terms and conditions in the rest of the world.”

Some developers claim Apple’s third-party payment accommodations are anything but seamless and straightforward. “I’d be surprised if a single app ever took them up on this,” prominent iOS developer Marco Arment wrote on Twitter. “This is almost certainly how Apple plans to comply with ALL external-purchase regulations, until and unless they’re forced to be more permissive.”
Regulators seem to agree. “As we understand it, Apple essentially prefers paying periodic fines rather than comply with a decision of the Dutch Competition Authority on the terms and conditions for third parties to access its App Store,” Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission for a Europe fit for the Digital Age, said in a speech delivered in California on Feb. 22.
Apple declined to provide a comment for this story. ACM spokesperson Murco Mijnlieff gave Protocol a brief statement acknowledging the penalty payments imposed on Apple concern “the ability for apps to make use of an alternative way for payments.”
Apple’s response to the Dutch antitrust order seems to be a preview of things to come. Politicians in both the EU and U.S. are attempting to kill Apple’s golden goose, the 30% App Store fee. Apple’s strategy of focusing on complying with the letter of the law rather than the spirit has largely succeeded in upholding the status quo in the Netherlands. But regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are paying attention to these evasion tactics and will almost certainly account for them in future legislation. The outcome of this regulatory cat-and-mouse game will demonstrate whether the EU and U.S. legislatures have any hope of reining in Big Tech with the tools currently at their disposal.

The first major test will likely come from the EU’s Digital Markets Act, which could pass as soon as this year and go into effect in 2023. The law targets “gatekeeper” firms — almost certainly including Apple — and would require them to allow the “effective use” of third-party services that are “accessed by means other than the core platform services of that gatekeeper.”
The DMA proposes significantly higher penalties for companies that don’t comply, and that in itself could make the legislation more potent than the Dutch rules. The European Parliament has proposed fines between 4% and 20% of total global revenue from the company’s previous fiscal year. Apple generated $366 billion in net revenue for the fiscal year ending Sept. 25, 2021: That would put the range of a potential fine between $14.6 billion and $73 billion. The company would likely have a hard time accepting even one of those fines, and it certainly wouldn’t want to absorb six in succession.
The DMA would also impose ex ante obligations on gatekeepers, meaning regulators would take a proactive role in stopping harms before they happen rather than simply punishing actors afterward. In the case of the DMA, the ex ante approach could give regulators more leeway to interpret whether gatekeepers are complying with the spirit of the laws — something that has clearly become an issue in the Netherlands.
Some EU regulators — and U.S. lawmakers — hope that the DMA will act as a guide for the U.S. Senators are currently considering the Open App Markets Act and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, both of which would limit Apple’s ability to favor its own payment system. The bills made it out of committee with bipartisan support and have been placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar.
Both Senate bills share some key elements with the DMA. The Open App Markets Act, for instance, would give regulators the ability to interpret whether platforms “materially restrict, impede, or unreasonably delay” the ability of users to access competing services. This flexible language could help the federal government hold Apple accountable for following the spirit rather than the letter of the law, as the DMA attempts to do.

“In the U.S., several bills are progressing through Congress … and they share many features with our proposal,” Vestager said in her February speech. “This is very encouraging, because it means that there is a great degree of global consensus.”
Some Apple competitors don’t share this confidence.
“During the committee hearings [on these U.S. bills], there were myriad concerns and questions and hypothetical amendments that were brought up by legislators,” Matt Fossen, the U.S. communications manager at Proton, told Protocol in an interview. “The one thing I don’t really recall hearing about was: What are we learning or taking away from what’s happening in the Netherlands?”
So if lawmakers are serious about disrupting Apple’s 30% fee structure, what can they do? Fossen outlined two scenarios. In the first, lawmakers in the U.S. and EU would “go back to the whiteboard and basically try to rehash substantial parts of these bills to account for all these things we’ve now seen Apple do.” The second scenario, he said, would see the bills pass as they stand, and then regulatory agencies such as the FTC would attempt to address loopholes during later rulemaking processes.
In either scenario, Apple would likely take its case to the court in an attempt to uphold the status quo. Lawmakers might be circling Apple, attempting to execute a siege, but Apple holds some $37 billion in cash, and that puts time on its side.
This story was updated March 8, 2022 to clarify a quote from Fossen regarding legislators.

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He’s based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.
There are steps Facebook and YouTube could have taken to limit RT and Sputnik’s reach years ago. They didn’t.
Social media giants could have taken any number of soft actions over the years that would have deprived Russian propaganda of oxygen.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol’s chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol’s fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
Jack Dorsey’s beard was not yet Rasputin-esque when he sat down for his first Senate hearing in September 2018. Seated to his right was Sheryl Sandberg, and over his left shoulder, a few rows back, lurked Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist whom Twitter would ban from the platform the next day.
It had been a year since the world found out about Russian efforts to turn Americans against each other during the 2016 U.S. election, and Dorsey and Sandberg were on the Hill to explain what their companies had done since to ensure it never happened again.
One big change Dorsey shared: Twitter blocked Russia Today and Sputnik from advertising on the platform shortly after the Russian interference plot became public. Not only that, Dorsey said, but the company had also donated the $1.9 million it made from those outlets to charity. That seemed to satisfy Twitter’s inquisitors in the Senate.

For the next four years, though, not a single other major U.S. tech platform followed suit — that is, until now. Over the course of the past week, Meta and Google have blocked RT and Sputnik throughout the EU, Russia and Ukraine. They’ve barred them from advertising or making money from ads, and Meta and Twitter have moved to limit their visibility in users’ feeds worldwide.
Shocking no one, on Thursday RT America laid off its staff with euphemistic flourish, citing “unforeseen business interruption events.” Russia, meanwhile, has retaliated against Silicon Valley’s actions by banning Facebook entirely.
Silicon Valley’s response to the war has been both forceful and speedy. But it doesn’t change the fact that these very companies also enabled Russian state propaganda for years before the fighting broke out. That’s even despite Russia’s actions in 2016 and the director of National Intelligence report on Russian interference in 2017 and the Mueller report in 2019 and the ongoing global information war the Kremlin has been openly waging on U.S. tech platforms ever since.
It didn’t have to be this way. Social media giants could have taken any number of soft actions along the way that would have deprived Russian propaganda of oxygen without requiring Facebook or YouTube to block them entirely. For one thing, prioritizing trustworthy information over engagement across their platforms would have helped.
“A lot of the things that get rid of spammers and bad actors in general would also hurt RT and Sputnik,” said Jeff Allen, a former member of Facebook’s integrity team and co-founder of the Integrity Institute think tank. “RT bats above its weight on social media, relative to Google search. There are systems that could have been adopted much earlier that would have made it more difficult for RT to get attention.”
But of course, that’s not the world that Facebook and YouTube have created. And so, RT now has millions of subscribers and followers on both platforms. When Meta decided last week to demote RT and other Russian state media, it was because the company had “no choice,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s former head of Civic Integrity, tweeted. Facebook “needed to at least partially undo the damage that years of recommending these entities have done (and the scores of permanent Page followers they created),” Chakrabarti wrote.

Facebook and YouTube also missed an obvious chance to ride Twitter’s coattails and cut off Russian state media from ads in 2017. At Facebook, at least, that’s not because it didn’t consider it, but because it worried about how it would have to apply such a policy globally to other state media outlets like the BBC, said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former public policy director. “How do you start drawing the line around what state media is OK and what’s not?” she said, recalling those conversations. Instead, Facebook announced in 2019 that it would begin labeling state-media outlets, a step toward transparency that didn’t require limiting anyone’s reach.
It’s worth wondering what impact tech platforms can even have in weakening an outlet like RT, at least inside Russia. After all, an organization funded by the Russian government hardly relies on YouTube ads to survive. “It’s important to distinguish between steps that are symbolically useful versus steps that have a real effect on the information environment,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.
Still, even symbolic steps have consequences. Now, tech giants have found themselves in, arguably, a worst case scenario: Having allowed Putin’s propaganda machine to grow online for years, they had no choice but to take a blunt instrument to it when a war broke out. Now, Russia has cut off access to a critical communication tool for millions of people. Which is, of course, what these companies wanted to avoid all along.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol’s chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol’s fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
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