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N.S.A. Takes Step Toward Protecting World’s Computers, Not Just Hacking Them

WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency has taken a significant step toward protecting the world’s computer systems, announcing Tuesday that it alerted Microsoft to a vulnerability in its Windows operating system rather than following the agency’s typical approach of keeping quiet and exploiting the flaw to develop cyberweapons.

The warning allowed Microsoft to develop a patch for the problem and gave the government an early start on fixing the vulnerability. In years past, the National Security Agency has collected all manner of computer vulnerabilities to gain access to digital networks to gather intelligence and generate hacking tools to use against American adversaries.

But that policy was heavily criticized in recent years when the agency lost control of some of those tools, which fell into the hands of cybercriminals and other malicious actors, including North Korean and Russian hackers.

By taking credit for spotting a critical vulnerability and leading the call to update computer systems, the National Security Agency appeared to adopt a shift in strategy and took on an unusually public role for one of the most secretive arms of the American government. The move shows the degree to which the agency was bruised by accusations that it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in preventable damage by allowing vulnerabilities to circulate.

“We wanted to take a new approach to sharing and also really work to build trust with the cybersecurity community,” Anne Neuberger, the agency’s cybersecurity director, told reporters.

The vulnerability exists in Windows 10, Microsoft’s flagship operating system, as well as some versions of its server software. It allows hackers to insert malicious code into a target computer and make it appear to be from a safe and trusted source. The vulnerability could also allow hackers to decrypt secret communications.

The vulnerability was serious, officials said. The National Security Agency warned government officials who oversee classified systems about the flaw and the coming Microsoft patch before discussing it publicly, Ms. Neuberger said.

The agency has in the past privately shared vulnerabilities it found with Microsoft and other technology companies. During the Obama administration, officials said, they shared about 90 percent of the flaws they discovered.

But the agency never allowed those firms to publicly identify the agency as the source of those discoveries, Ms. Neuberger said. The agency wanted the public acknowledgment of its role in finding the new defect to demonstrate the importance of patching the flaw, she said.

“Ensuring vulnerabilities can be mitigated is an absolute priority,” Ms. Neuberger said.

The National Security Agency’s action suggests the vulnerability for American government systems likely outweighed its usefulness as a tool for the agency to gather intelligence.

Experts and technology companies praised the agency. But some noted that even as one arm of the government was moving to protect the public’s ability to encrypt its communications, another was taking the opposite tack. A day earlier, the Justice Department called on Apple to break the encryption on its phones, and it has pushed for so-called back doors on Facebook’s encrypted message services.

The Washington Post earlier reported on the agency’s warning to Microsoft, which released a patch for the vulnerability on Tuesday.

Customers who automatically update their operating systems or applied Tuesday’s patch “are already protected,” said Jeff Jones, a senior director at Microsoft.

Microsoft said no evidence had emerged that malicious actors had exploited the vulnerability and said its security software could detect malware trying to do so.

The National Security Agency’s decision to reveal the flaw to Microsoft — and then to publicly announce its move — is in sharp contrast to how it handled another flaw that it discovered but told Microsoft about too late to prevent global damage.

In early 2017, agency officials told Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, that it had found a flaw in its operating systems but lost it to a group called the Shadow Brokers, which somehow obtained hacking tools that the United States had used to spy on other countries. The agency had known about the flaw for some time but held on to it, believing that one day it might be useful for surveillance or the development of a cyberweapon.

But when the agency’s arsenal of flaws leaked out — presumably through insiders, though the National Security Agency has never said — among it was code nicknamed “Eternal Blue.” While Microsoft had raced to get people to patch the erroneous code, many systems remained unprotected.

Soon North Korean hackers used the code to develop “WannaCry,” software that crippled the British health care system, which used an outdated version of Microsoft Windows. And Russian hackers used it in the NotPetya attacks, among the most damaging cyberattacks in history, costing hundreds of million of dollars to companies including FedEx and Maersk, the shipping giant.

The agency dismissed the idea that it was responsible for the malicious use of the code — arguing that the responsibility lay with North Korea and Russia, which mounted the attacks. But privately, many agency officials acknowledged that the tendency to hoard such flaws in hopes of developing weapons had come at a huge price and that the United States bore some responsibility for the damage caused by Eternal Blue and other tools.

Some experts believe Eternal Blue is continuing to cause problems, allowing hackers to disrupt computer systems.

The White House often decides whether to hold on to a flaw for future use or reveal it to the manufacturer. Obama administration officials set up a system to make the decision. Trump administration officials say a similar process still exists, but they have stopped publishing information about the percentage of vulnerabilities they make public.

The National Security Council reviewed the latest decision to share information about the new flaw with Microsoft, Ms. Neuberger said.

The vulnerability involves Windows’ digital signature system, according to one of the people familiar with the issue. Microsoft, and other companies, use digital signatures to identify software and updates as authentic.

The vulnerability unearthed by the National Security Agency could potentially allow a hacker to add a fake signature that could allow malware to be inserted onto a vulnerable computer. Because the vulnerability was not yet public, no known malware has taken advantage of it.

Criminal hackers or nation states typically take weeks to exploit a new vulnerability, so businesses, governments and individuals may have a little time to install the security patch developed by Microsoft. Experts urged them to move quickly nonetheless.

It was not clear how much of a strategic shift the agency’s announcement amounted to. The agency presumably is still hunting for vulnerabilities and flaws that could allow them to infiltrate Iranian computer systems, as well as those used by Russia, China and other adversarial countries.

But if the agency continues to follow the example set Tuesday, future vulnerabilities that affect not just one critical computer system but instead millions of users or more across the world, its experts could help fix the problem rather than exploit it.

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Apple Takes a (Cautious) Stand Against Opening a Killer’s iPhones

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple is privately preparing for a legal fight with the Justice Department to defend encryption on its iPhones while publicly trying to defuse the dispute, as the technology giant navigates an increasingly tricky line between its customers and the Trump administration.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has marshaled a handful of top advisers, while Attorney General William P. Barr has taken aim at the company and asked it to help penetrate two phones used by a gunman in a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla.

Executives at Apple have been surprised by the case’s quick escalation, said people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. And there is frustration and skepticism among some on the Apple team working on the issue that the Justice Department hasn’t spent enough time trying to get into the iPhones with third-party tools, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

The situation has become a sudden crisis at Apple that pits Mr. Cook’s longstanding commitment to protecting people’s privacy against accusations from the United States government that it is putting the public at risk. The case resembles Apple’s clash with the F.B.I. in 2016 over another dead gunman’s phone, which dragged on for months.

This time, Apple is facing off against the Trump administration, which has been unpredictable. The stakes are high for Mr. Cook, who has built an unusual alliance with President Trump that has helped Apple largely avoid damaging tariffs in the trade war with China. That relationship will now be tested as Mr. Cook confronts Mr. Barr, one of the president’s closest allies.

“We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday in a post on Twitter. “They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country.”

Apple declined to comment on the issue on Tuesday. Late Monday, after Mr. Barr had complained that the company had provided no “substantive assistance” in gaining access to the phones used in the Pensacola shooting, Apple said it rejected that characterization. It added that “encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”

But Apple also offered conciliatory language, in a sign that it did not want the showdown to intensify. The company said it was working with the F.B.I. on the Pensacola case, with its engineers recently holding a call to provide technical assistance.

“We will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation,” Apple said.

At the heart of the tussle is a debate between Apple and the government over whether security or privacy trumps the other. Apple has said it chooses not to build a “backdoor” way for governments to get into iPhones and to bypass encryption because that would create a slippery slope that could damage people’s privacy.

The government has argued it is not up to Apple to choose whether to provide help, as the Fourth Amendment allows the government to violate individual privacy in the interest of public safety. Privacy has never been an absolute right under the Constitution, Mr. Barr said in a speech in October.

Mr. Cook publicly took a stand on privacy in 2016 when Apple fought a court order from the F.B.I. to open the iPhone of a gunman involved in a San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting. The company said it could open the phone in a month, using a team of six to 10 engineers. But in a blistering, 1,100-word letter to Apple customers at the time, Mr. Cook warned that creating a way for the authorities to gain access to someone’s iPhone “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel who helped lead the company’s response in the San Bernardino case, said in an interview last year that Mr. Cook had staked his reputation on the stance. Had Apple’s board not agreed with the position, Mr. Cook was prepared to resign, Mr. Sewell said.

The San Bernardino case was bitterly contested by the government and Apple until a private company came forward with a way to break into the phone. Since then, Mr. Cook has made privacy one of Apple’s core values. That has set Apple apart from tech giants like Facebook and Google, which have faced scrutiny for vacuuming up people’s data to sell ads.

“It’s brilliant marketing,” Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor who has written a book on the tech giants, said of Apple. “They’re so concerned with your privacy that they’re willing to wave the finger at the F.B.I.”

Mr. Cook’s small team at Apple is now aiming to steer the current situation toward an outside resolution that doesn’t involve the company breaking its own security, even as it prepares for a potential legal battle over the issue, said the people with knowledge of the thinking.

Some of the frustration within Apple over the Justice Department is rooted in how police have previously exploited software flaws to break into iPhones. The Pensacola gunman’s phones were an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 Plus, according to a person familiar with the investigation who declined to be named because the detail was confidential.

Those phones, released in 2012 and 2016, lack Apple’s most sophisticated encryption. The iPhone 5 is even older than the device in the San Bernardino case, which was an iPhone 5C.

Security researchers and a former senior Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said tools from at least two companies, Cellebrite and Grayshift, have long been able to bypass the encryption on those iPhone models.

Cellebrite said in an email that it helps “thousands of organizations globally to lawfully access and analyze” digital information; it declined to comment on an active investigation. Grayshift declined to comment.

Cellebrite’s and Grayshift’s tools exploit flaws in iPhone software that let them remove limits on how many passwords can be tried before the device erases its data, the researchers said. Typically, iPhones allow 10 password attempts. The tools then use a so-called brute-force attack, or repeated automated attempts of thousands of passcodes, until one works.

“The iPhone 5 is so old, you are guaranteed that Grayshift and Cellebrite can break into those every bit as easily as Apple could,” said Nicholas Weaver, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has taught iPhone security.

Chuck Cohen, who recently retired as head of the Indiana State Police’s efforts to break into encrypted devices, said his team used a $15,000 device from Grayshift that enabled it to regularly get into iPhones, particularly older ones, though the tool didn’t always work.

In the San Bernardino case, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General later found the F.B.I. had not tried all possible solutions before trying to force Apple to unlock the phone. In the current case, Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials have said they have exhausted all options, though they declined to detail exactly why third-party tools have failed on these phones as the authorities seek to learn if the gunman acted alone or coordinated with others.

“The F.B.I.’s technical experts — as well as those consulted outside of the organization — have played an integral role in this investigation,” an F.B.I. spokeswoman said. “The consensus was reached, after all efforts to access the shooter’s phones had been unsuccessful, that the next step was to reach out to start a conversation with Apple.”

Security researchers speculated that in the Pensacola case, the F.B.I. might still be trying a brute-force attack to get into the phones. They said major physical damage may have impeded any third-party tools from opening the devices. The Pensacola gunman had shot the iPhone 7 Plus once and tried destroying the iPhone 5, according to F.B.I. photos.

The F.B.I. said it fixed the iPhones in a lab so that they would turn on, but the authorities still couldn’t bypass their encryption. Security researchers and the former Apple executive said any damage that prevented third-party tools from working would also preclude a solution from Apple.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said in an email: “Apple designed these phones and implemented their encryption. It’s a simple, ‘front-door’ request: Will Apple help us get into the shooter’s phones or not?”

While Apple has closed loopholes that police have used to break into its devices and resisted some law enforcement requests for access, it has also routinely helped police get information from phones in cases that don’t require it to break its encryption. Apple has held seminars for police departments on how to quickly get into a suspect’s phone, and it has a hotline and dedicated team to aid police in time-sensitive cases.

In the past seven years, Apple has also complied with roughly 127,000 requests from American law enforcement agencies for data stored on its computer servers. Such data is unencrypted and access is possible without a customer’s passcode.

In 2016, when the standoff between Apple and the government was at its most acrimonious, Mr. Cook said Congress should pass a law to decide the boundaries between public safety and technological security. In court filings, Apple even identified an applicable law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

On Monday, Mr. Barr said the Trump administration had revived talks with Congress to come up with such a law.

Jack Nicas reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington.

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Plight of Newspapers Generates Uncommon Bipartisan Unity

CORNELIA, Ga. — When a sport utility vehicle swerved out of its lane several weeks ago, slamming into a pickup truck and killing a teenager, a reporter from The Northeast Georgian raced to the scene. Within hours, the paper had posted the news on Facebook and updated it twice. It was shared by hundreds of people on the social network.

The fatal wreck consumed the town of Cornelia, Ga., nestled near the Chattahoochee National Forest about 90 miles northeast of Atlanta. The Northeast Georgian was the first to report the news, but unless the people who shared its story on Facebook follow a link to its website, either to see an ad or to subscribe to its twice-weekly print edition, the paper won’t get paid.

As with many small papers across the country, that business strategy is not working for The Northeast Georgian. The paper’s five employees do not just report and write. They also edit the articles, take photographs and lay out the newspaper.

“My grandmother used to say, ‘Honey, if you let them get milk through the fence, they’ll never buy the cow,’” said Dink NeSmith, chief executive of Community Newspapers Inc., which owns The Northeast Georgian and 23 other local papers.

But the tough economics facing small newspapers like Mr. NeSmith’s has generated rare bipartisan agreement in Washington.

Anger toward big technology companies has led to multiple antitrust investigations, calls for a new federal data privacy law and criticism of the companies’ political ad policies. Perhaps no issue about the tech companies, though, has united lawmakers in the Capitol like the decimation of local news.

Lawmakers from both parties blame companies like Facebook and Google, which dominate the online ad industry.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, gave a big boost last week to a bill that may provide some papers a lifeboat. The proposal would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws, allowing them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies. (The bill is backed by the News Media Alliance, a trade group that represents news organizations including The New York Times Company.)

The proposal was sponsored by Representative Doug Collins, a conservative Georgia Republican whose district includes Cornelia. It was written by Representative David Cicilline, a liberal Democrat from Rhode Island. Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, sponsored an identical version in the Senate. Prominent co-sponsors joined, including Democrats like Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.

For the politicians, the issue is personal. They see news deserts in places where one or two local newspapers used to track their campaigns and official actions, keep local police departments and school boards accountable, and stitch together communities with big layouts on Main Street holiday parades and high school sports stars.

“I am a free-markets guy and have fought against the idea that just because something is big it is necessarily bad,” Mr. Collins said. “But look, I’m a politician and live with the media and see its importance. These big, disruptive platforms are making money off creators of content disproportionately.”

Facebook and Google declined to comment about the legislation. Representatives of the companies say their businesses have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to bolster local journalism. The companies also work with news organizations to promote their articles and videos, driving traffic to their websites.

Facebook recently announced partnerships with major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN, that would see some of the publishers paid for the content they share.

“We know this is a challenging time for journalism,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement. “And we are working closely with publishers to find new ways to address those challenges.”

A Google spokeswoman said, “Every month, Google News and Google Search drive over 24 billion visits to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue.”

Newspapers have faced devastating financial losses for years. One in five newspapers have closed since 2004 in the United States, and about half of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties have only one newspaper, many of them printing weekly, according to a report by the University of North Carolina published in late 2018. In the last year alone, Facebook and Google added tens of thousands of employees and reported billions of dollars in profits.

Take Mr. Collins’s district in northern Georgia. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the state’s biggest newspaper, has cut its staff by half in the past eight years. In Mr. Collins’s hometown, The Gainesville Times, one of the biggest papers in its region, cut its weekly print publication schedule to five days from seven a year ago.

The demand for local news remains. One day shortly after the fatal car crash, all of the discussion at Fender’s Diner, a 1950s-inspired eatery in Cornelia, was about the victim and allegations that the woman behind the wheel of the S.U.V. had been drinking.

“I care more about the people who walk through my front door of my place and the issues that matter to them than anything going on in Washington,” said Bradley Cook, the owner of the restaurant.

Many local leaders say the power of local newspapers was on display recently in Jesup, in southeastern Georgia. One of Mr. NeSmith’s papers in the area, The Press Sentinel in Wayne County, discovered that an Arizona-based company backed by wealthy investors, including Bill Gates, had quietly applied to dump 10,000 tons of coal ash per day in Jesup.

The paper published more than 70 articles about the application, and Mr. NeSmith wrote several editorials. The attention led to public hearings, and the company, Republic Services, to delay its plans.

Many officials also say that without robust local coverage, they are constantly fighting against misinformation that spreads on social media. After the Board of Commissioners in Habersham County, Ga., proposed a bond issue to expand the county jail, speculation spread online about the motivations for the project and the burden for taxpayers, said Stacy Hall, the board’s chairman. Voters defeated the proposal in November.

“Disinformation on social media is our No. 1 problem,” Mr. Hall said. “There is a crisis in getting the facts — the basic facts that only community newspapers can provide.”

The proposed antitrust exemption for news organizations still faces hurdles. Congress passed few bills of note in 2019 — and it may pass even fewer this year, in the face of impeachment and the November election. Conservative think tanks and some consumer groups are pushing back on the bill, wary of giving any antitrust exemptions to businesses.

“Instead of trying to innovate and find solutions that way,” said Neil Chilson, a senior research fellow for technology and innovation at the Charles Koch Institute, “they are trying to make better deals with people with more money, and that doesn’t solve their basic business-model problems.”

Supporters of the legislation said it was not a magic pill for profitability. It could, they say, benefit newspapers with a national reach — like The Times and The Washington Post — more than small papers. Facebook, for instance, has never featured articles from Mr. NeSmith’s newspaper chain in its “Today In” feature, an aggregation of local news from the nation’s smallest papers that can drive a lot of traffic to a news site.

“It will start with larger national publications, and then the question is how does this trickle down,” said Otis A. Brumby III, the publisher of The Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia.

But the supporters say it could stop or at least slow the financial losses at some papers, giving them time to create a new business model for the internet.

“The tech industry platforms benefit from our news,” said Robin Rhodes, the executive director of the Georgia Press Association, which supports the proposal. “And we need to be on a level playing ground.”

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‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses

In 2006, Google bought YouTube for more than $1 billion, Apple was preparing to announce the first iPhone, and the American housing bubble began to deflate. Claire Stapleton, then a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, faced the same question over and over: What did she plan to do with that English degree? She flirted, noncommittally, with Teach for America.

Then, a Google recruiter came to campus and, Ms. Stapleton said, she “won ‘American Idol.’” The company flew her out to Mountain View, Calif., which felt to her “like the promised land” — 15 cafeterias, beach volleyball courts, Zumba classes, haircuts and laundry on-site.

But for Ms. Stapleton, now 34, the real appeal in a job at Google was what seemed to be a perfect balance of working for income and according to one’s conscience. Naturally, she said yes to an offer in the corporate communications department.

“There was this ambient glow of being part of a company that was changing the world,” Ms. Stapleton said. “I was totally googly-eyed about it.”

More than a decade later, college seniors and recent graduates looking for jobs that are both principled and high-paying are doing so in a world that has soured on Big Tech. The positive perceptions of Google, Facebook and other large tech firms are crumbling.

Many students still see employment in tech as a ticket to prosperity, but for job seekers who can afford to be choosy, there is a growing sentiment that Silicon Valley’s most lucrative positions aren’t worth the ethical quandaries.

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“Working at Google or Facebook seemed like the coolest thing ever my freshman year, because you’d get paid a ton of money but it was socially responsible,” said Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan. “It was like a utopian workplace.”

Now, he said, “there’s more hesitation about the moral qualities of these jobs. It’s like how people look at Wall Street.”

The growing skepticism of Silicon Valley, sometimes referred to as the “techlash,” has spared few of technology’s major players.

In 2019, Facebook was fined nearly $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Amazon canceled its plans for a New York City headquarters after residents, union leaders and local legislators contested the idea that the behemoth should receive $3 billion from the state to set up shop. Google, in 2018, faced internal protests over its plans for a censored search engine in China and handling of sexual harassment. (High-ranking Google employees have stated that the company never planned to expand search into China, but also that plans for a China project had been “terminated.”)

The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

At this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen compared Mark Zuckerberg to the main character in “JoJo Rabbit”: a “naïve, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends.”

That these attitudes are shared by undergraduates and graduate students — who are supposed to be imbued with high-minded idealism — is no surprise. In August, the reporter April Glaser wrote about campus techlash for Slate. She found that at Stanford, known for its competitive computer science program, some students said they had no interest in working for a major tech company, while others sought “to push for change from within.”

Belce Dogru, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science last year and is completing a master’s program at the university, said: “There has definitely been a shift in conversation on campus.”

Stanford is the second-biggest feeder school for jobs in Silicon Valley, according to data from HiringSolved, a software company focused on recruiting. Some companies pay as much as $12,000 to advertise at the university’s computer science job fairs; recruiters at those events didn’t always have to make a hard sell.

“It felt like in my freshman year Google, Palantir and Facebook were these shiny places everyone wanted to be. It was like, ‘Wow, you work at Facebook. You must be really smart,’” said Ms. Dogru, 23. “Now if a classmate tells me they’re joining Palantir or Facebook, there’s an awkward gap where they feel like they have to justify themselves.”

Palantir, in particular, has drawn the ire of students at Stanford for providing services to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (also known as ICE).

Last summer, a campus activist group, Students for the Liberation of All People, visited the company’s office, a 15-minute walk from campus, and hung a banner nearby that read: “Our software is so powerful it separates families.” Similar protests took place at the University of California, Berkeley, Brown and Yale, according to Recode. The protests, and the attitudes they reflected, were also covered in The Los Angeles Times.

Audrey Steinkamp, a 19-year-old sophomore at Yale, which sends about 10 percent of each graduating class into tech, said that taking a job in Silicon Valley is seen as “selling out,” no different from the economics majors going into consulting who are “lovingly and not-so-lovingly called ‘snakes.’”

That is especially true, some of the students said, when a classmate chooses to work for Facebook, whose products have spread disinformation and helped influence a presidential election.

“The work you do at a place like Facebook could be harmful at a much larger scale than an investment bank,” Ms. Dogru said. “It’s in the pockets of millions of people, and it’s a source of news for millions of people. It’s working at a scary scale.”

Many students still believe that technology can help change the world for good. As Ms. Glaser put it for Slate, some of them are opting out of the Big Tech pipeline and trying, instead, “to use technical skills as an insurance policy against dystopia.”

“Students have an opportunity to look at where they can have the most impact that’s in line with their values,” said Leslie Miley, a former director of engineering at Google and Slack. “The fact of the matter is Google, Facebook, Twitter are not in line with those values because they’re huge companies beholden to a lot of different masters.”

Anna Geiduschek, a software engineer who graduated from Stanford in 2014, was working at Dropbox last year when she received an email from an Amazon Web Services recruiter. She replied that she wouldn’t consider a job with the company unless Amazon cut its contract with Palantir.

“These companies go out of their way to try and woo software engineers, and I realized it would send a powerful message for me as a potential employee to tell them no,” Ms. Geiduschek, 27, said, noting that top tech companies sometimes spend roughly $20,000 to recruit a single engineer. “You could basically cut them off at their supply.”

Her recruiter responded: “Wow I honestly had no idea. I will run this up to leadership.” Days later, Ms. Geiduschek received another template email from an Amazon hiring manager, so she scheduled a call and aired her grievances by phone.

Some engineers are sharing screenshots of their protest emails on Twitter with the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt. Jackie Luo, an engineer, sent an email to Google saying that she wouldn’t consider a job there given its plans to re-enter China with a censored search engine.

Kelly Carter, a web developer, emailed a Tesla recruiter with her concerns about the company’s anti-union tactics. Craig Chasseur, a software engineer, emailed the H.R. department at Salesforce to critique the company’s contract with ICE.

These protests echo mounting public concerns about the power of these corporations. But it’s not clear whether they have moved the needle for prospective hires.

Former recruiters for Facebook told CNBC in May that the acceptance rate for full-time engineering job offers at the company had dropped precipitously, as much as 40 percent.

After the article’s publication, Facebook disputed the figure; the company “regularly ranks high on industry lists of most attractive employers,” a spokesman said. Data published the same month by LinkedIn showed that tech firms continued to hire at high rates, especially for entry-level employees.

But at campus career centers, students are struggling with the dual, and sometimes dueling, desires for prestige and purpose.

“It started with millennials, but now Gen Z-ers are getting educated because they want to do good in the world,” said Sue Harbour, the senior associate director of the career center at the University of California, Berkeley, which is Silicon Valley’s top feeder, according to HiringSolved. “And as we’ve seen tech companies grow, we’ve also seen the need for more tech oriented to social responsibility.”

Some recent graduates are taking their technical skills to smaller social impact groups instead of the biggest firms. Ms. Dogru said that some of her peers are pursuing jobs at start-ups focused on health, education and privacy. Ms. Harbour said Berkeley offers a networking event called Tech for Good, where alumni from purpose-driven groups like Code for America and Khan Academy share career opportunities.

Ms. Geiduschek said she recently left Dropbox for Recidiviz, a nonprofit that builds technological tools for criminal justice reform.

But those so-called passion jobs are more challenging to come by, according to Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead author of a 2015 paper about elite colleges “funneling” graduates into certain kinds of “prestigious” careers.

“For other sectors like tech it’s easier to get on the conveyor belt and fill these positions,” Dr. Binder said. “I graduated from Stanford in the ’80s, and even back then there was talk on campus about people selling out and going to investment banks, but those jobs are still getting filled. The self-incrimination hasn’t stopped the juggernaut.”

Dr. Binder said elite schools have long steered students toward certain “high-status” industries — the C.I.A. in the 1950s, finance and consulting in the aughts and tech today. It’s a “prestige system,” she said, that universities enable.

“As tech firms get more negative reviews in the media and it becomes clear what their political toll can be, students may have more circumspection about taking these jobs,” she said. “At the same time, they’ll continue taking these jobs because of the security and reputation that comes with them. And universities will keep sponsoring all this recruitment.”

For years, students were told they could tackle ethical concerns about technology from the inside, working within the mammoth structures of companies like Google. Ms. Stapleton said that was part of the company’s allure: its ostensible commitment to empowering even its youngest employees to weigh in on critical problems.

She spent 12 years at Google and YouTube on various teams, including internal communications, where she wrote company talking points. Her weekly emails to staff, she said, were the stuff of corporate legend. At a 2012 all-hands, Larry Page, one of the company’s founders, called her onstage to celebrate her work as colleagues presented her with a wooden plaque that read: “The Bard of Google.”

Then, in 2018, Ms. Stapleton helped organize a Google walkout, after reporting in The New York Times revealed that the company gave a $90 million severance package to the Android creator Andy Rubin, who was accused of sexual misconduct.

Twenty-thousand workers left their desks in protest. Within six months, Ms. Stapleton said, she was demoted and pushed to resign. In December, she wrote about her experience in an essay for Elle.

Google maintained that Ms. Stapleton was not sidelined for her role in the walkout. “We thank Claire for her work at Google and wish her all the best,” a Google spokesperson responded. “To reiterate, we don’t tolerate retaliation. Our employee relations team did a thorough investigation of her claims and found no evidence of retaliation. They found that Claire’s management team supported her contributions to our workplace, including awarding her their team Culture Award for her role in the Walkout.”

But Ms. Stapleton said her story should give bright-eyed students pause about whether Big Tech and altruism are aligned.

“I don’t know if Google can credibly sell young people on the promise of doing good in the world anymore,” she said. “That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful people there and interesting things to work on. But if you care about a company’s values, ethics and contributions to society, you should take your talents elsewhere.”

Mr. Miley, who left Google in 2019, echoed her sentiment: “It’s hard to change a system from within when the system doesn’t think it needs to be changed.”

A spokeswoman for Google said the company continues to see job application numbers grow annually, and noted that the practice of having employees raise concerns about policies, whether on data privacy or human rights reviews, is part of the corporate culture.

The outside attention those concerns may draw is a reflection of Google’s growth and evolution from a search company to a larger entity with many products and services, the spokeswoman said.

But even companies with a market cap of over $970 billion (Google’s parent company, Alphabet) or over $614 billion (Facebook) aren’t immune to the punches of potential talent. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who also advises companies on recruitment, estimated that criticisms of Uber’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies cost the company roughly $100 million, largely because of talent lost to competitors.

Sarah Soule, a professor and senior associate dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said in an email that there is a long history of students protesting questionable corporate ethics, with several cases of protest directed toward recruiters, yielding powerful effects.

Take the case of Dow Chemical Company, which in 1965 accepted a $5 million Department of Defense contract to manufacture the flammable gel napalm during the Vietnam War. When recruiters turned up at New York University, they were met with hundreds of angry student demonstrators, The Times reported.

Brendon Sexton, the student government president at N.Y.U. at the time, demanded a moratorium on Dow’s campus recruitment efforts in 1968. “They don’t care that a sin is being committed here,” he told protesters near the job interview site.

Public pressure continued to mount, fueled largely by young activists. The company halted its production of napalm a year later.

Ms. Geiduschek said the behavior of tech companies is especially difficult to challenge because their products are ubiquitous.

“It’s hard to avoid spending your money at Amazon. I sometimes do it, especially in that Christmas-season binge,” she said. “If you want to sway this company to do the right thing, you have to attack it at places that are higher leverage, where it hurts.”

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Biden, Joseph R Jr Bosworth, Andrew (1982- ) Computers and the Internet Dorsey, Jack Facebook Inc Google Inc Instagram Inc Online Advertising Political Advertising Presidential Election of 2020 Sandberg, Sheryl K Social Media Trump, Donald J Twitter Uncategorized United States Politics and Government Warren, Elizabeth Zuckerberg, Mark E

Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down From Allowing Lies in Political Ads

SAN FRANCISCO — Defying pressure from Congress, Facebook said on Thursday that it would continue to allow political campaigns to use the site to target advertisements to particular slices of the electorate and that it would not police the truthfulness of the messages sent out.

The stance put Facebook, the most important digital platform for political ads, at odds with some of the other large tech companies, which have begun to put new limits on political ads.

Facebook’s decision, telegraphed in recent months by executives, is likely to harden criticism of the company heading into this year’s presidential election.

Political advertising cuts to the heart of Facebook’s outsize role in society, and the company has found itself squeezed between liberal critics, who want it to do a better job of policing its various social media platforms, and conservatives, who say their views are being unfairly muzzled.

The issue has raised important questions regarding how heavy a hand technology companies like Facebook — which also owns Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp — and Google should exert when deciding what types of political content they will and will not permit.

By maintaining a status quo, Facebook executives are essentially saying they are doing the best they can without government guidance and see little benefit to the company or the public in changing.

In a blog post, a company official echoed Facebook’s earlier calls for lawmakers to set firm rules.

“In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management overseeing the advertising integrity division, said in the post. “We have based ours on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.”

Other social media companies have decided otherwise, and some had hoped Facebook would quietly follow their lead. In late October, Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, banned all political advertising from his network, citing the challenges that novel digital systems present to civic discourse. Google quickly followed suit with limits on political ads across some of its properties, though narrower in scope.

Reaction to Facebook’s policy broke down largely along party lines.

The Trump campaign, which has been highly critical of any attempts by technology companies to regulate political advertising and has already spent more than $27 million on the platform, largely supported Facebook’s decision not to interfere in targeting ads or to set fact-checking standards.

“Our ads are always accurate so it’s good that Facebook won’t limit political messages because it encourages more Americans to be involved in the process,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign. “This is much better than the approaches from Twitter and Google, which will lead to voter suppression.”

Democratic presidential candidates and outside groups decried the decision.

“Facebook is paying for its own glowing fake news coverage, so it’s not surprising they’re standing their ground on letting political figures lie to you,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.

Ms. Warren, who has been among the most critical of Facebook and regularly calls for major tech companies to be broken up, reiterated her stance that the social media company should face tougher policies.

The Biden campaign was similarly critical. The campaign has confronted Facebook over an ad run by President Trump’s campaign that attacked Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s record on Ukraine.

“Donald Trump’s campaign can (and will) still lie in political ads,” Bill Russo, the deputy communications director for Mr. Biden, said in a statement. “Facebook can (and will) still profit off it. Today’s announcement is more window dressing around their decision to allow paid misinformation.”

But many Democratic groups willing to criticize Facebook had to walk a fine line; they have pushed for more regulation when it comes to fact-checking political ads, but they have been adamantly opposed to any changes to the ad-targeting features.

On Thursday, some Democratic outside groups welcomed Facebook’s decision not to limit microtargeting, but still thought the policy fell short.

“These changes read to us mostly as a cover for not making the change that is most vital: ensuring politicians are not allowed to use Facebook as a tool to lie to and manipulate voters,” said Madeline Kriger, who oversees digital ad buying at Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC.

Facebook has played down the business opportunity in political ads, saying the vast majority of its revenue came from commercial, not political, ads. But lawmakers have noted that Facebook ads could be a focal point of Mr. Trump’s campaign as well as those of top Democrats.

Facebook’s hands-off ad policy has already allowed for misleading advertisements. In October, a Facebook ad from the Trump campaign made false accusations about Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. The ad quickly went viral and was viewed by millions. After the Biden campaign asked Facebook to take down the ad, the company refused.

“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Facebook’s head of global elections policy, Katie Harbath, wrote in the letter to the Biden campaign.

In an attempt to provoke Facebook, Ms. Warren’s presidential campaign ran an ad falsely claiming that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was backing the re-election of Mr. Trump. Facebook did not take the ad down.

Criticism seemed to stiffen Mr. Zuckerberg’s resolve. Company officials said he and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s president, had ultimately made the decision to stand firm.

In a strongly worded speech at Georgetown University in October, Mr. Zuckerberg said he believed in the power of unfettered speech, including in paid advertising, and did not want to be in the position to police what politicians could and could not say to constituents. Facebook’s users, he said, should be allowed to make those decisions for themselves.

“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he said.

Facebook officials have repeatedly said significant changes to its rules for political or issue ads could harm the ability of smaller, less well-funded organizations to raise money and organize across the network.

Instead of overhauling its policies, Facebook has made small tweaks. Mr. Leathern said Facebook would add greater transparency features to its library of political advertising in the coming months, a resource for journalists and outside researchers to scrutinize the types of ads run by the campaigns.

Facebook also will add a feature that allows users to see fewer campaign and political issue ads in their news feeds, something the company has said many users have requested.

There was considerable debate inside Facebook about whether it should change. Late last year, hundreds of employees supported an internal memo that called on Mr. Zuckerberg to limit the abilities of Facebook’s political advertising products.

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Bosworth said that even though keeping the current policies in place “very well may lead to” Mr. Trump’s re-election, it was the right decision. Dozens of Facebook employees pushed back on Mr. Bosworth’s conclusions, arguing in the comments section below his post that politicians should be held to the same standard that applies to other Facebook users.

For now, Facebook appears willing to risk disinformation in support of unfettered speech.

“Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies,” Mr. Leathern said. “Frankly, we believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this, the better.”

Mike Isaac reported in San Francisco and Cecilia Kang reported from Washington. Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting from New York.

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Computers and the Internet Deaths (Obituaries) Kirstein, Peter (1933-2020) Uncategorized

Peter Kirstein, Father of the European Internet, Is Dead at 86

Peter Kirstein, a British computer scientist who was widely recognized as the father of the European internet, died on Wednesday at his home in London. He was 86.

His daughter, Sara Lynn Black, said the cause was a brain tumor.

Professor Kirstein fashioned his pivotal role in computer networking the old-fashioned way: through human connections. In 1982, his collegial ties to American scientists working in the nascent field of computer networks led him to adopt their standards in his own London research lab.

Those standards were called Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP, which enable different computer networks to share information. Professor Kirstein embraced TCP/IP despite competing protocols being put forward at the time by international standards groups.

“Peter was the internet’s great champion in Europe,” said Vinton G. Cerf, an American internet pioneer who was a developer of TCP/IP and a colleague and friend of Professor Kirstein’s. “With skill and finesse, he resisted enormous pressure to adopt alternatives.”

Professor Kirstein was so avid a fan of computer networking that he gave Queen Elizabeth II her own email address, HME2. In 1976, while christening a telecommunications research center in Malvern, England, the queen became one of the first heads of state to send an email.

In 2003, when the queen made Professor Kirstein a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, he reminded her of that day in Malvern, and “she smiled,” he recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2019.

“If she actually remembered sending that email, I can’t say,” he said.

Peter Thomas Kirschstein was born on June 20, 1933, in Berlin to Walter and Eleanor (Jacobsohn) Kirschstein. Both parents were dentists. His mother was born in London but raised in Germany. His father, who had been awarded the Iron Cross for his service in World War I, considered himself a patriotic German, Professor Kirstein said.

He referred to his parents as highly assimilated Jews. “My mother was completely agnostic,” he said. “That class of Jews in Germany had absolutely no contact, really, with Judaism.”

His father belonged to an exclusive yacht club in Berlin.

“As early as 1931, the secretary of the club said, ‘You can’t be very happy here with people like Joachim von Ribbentrop and Hermann Göring in the club,’” Professor Kirstein said. “It wasn’t until they said that to him that he suddenly realized they were regarding him as Jewish.”

Feeling increasingly unsafe in Germany, the family took advantage of Eleanor Kirschstein’s British citizenship and moved to London in 1937. Walter changed the family’s surname to Kirstein when he became a naturalized citizen in 1947.

Professor Kirstein studied mathematics at Cambridge University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1954. For graduate work, he went to Stanford University, where he received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1957.

In 1956, during a trans-Atlantic crossing, he met Gwen Oldham, a dental hygienist who was on her way home to England. “I noticed her as we were leaving,” he recalled. “She was busy flirting with lots of boys. I thought, ‘That’s the kind of person I’d stay away from.’” They married in 1958.

In addition to his daughter Ms. Black, Professor Kirstein is survived by his wife; another daughter, Claire Fiona Kirstein; a sister, Ellen Batzdorf; and six grandchildren.

In 1973, after stints with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva and in General Electric’s Zurich office, Professor Kirstein joined the faculty at the University College London. Computer networking became his principal research field.

When he built the university’s email gateway to the United States in 1973, his lab became one of the first international connections on the Arpanet, the precursor to the internet. For the next decade he oversaw Britain’s presence on the Arpanet.

Professor Kirstein formed a close working relationship with Dr. Cerf and another American, Robert Kahn — the co-inventors of TCP/IP — and exerted considerable influence in the field through his ties to the British Ministry of Defence and the British Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

With additional support from the Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he became a crucial facilitator in the spread of TCP/IP in Europe, pushing academic and research communities there to use them. He adopted TCP/IP at University College London in 1982.

The protocols remain the technical underpinning of today’s internet.

“It’s possible that even without Peter, TCP/IP would eventually have made its way into Europe,” Dr. Cerf said. “But Peter was the bellwether.”

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Computers and the Internet Domain Names (Internet) Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers Internet Society Nonprofit Organizations Private Equity Uncategorized

Inside the Billion-Dollar Battle Over .Org

Two months ago, Ethos Capital, a private equity firm, announced that it planned to buy the rights to a tract of internet real estate for more than $1 billion.

But it wasn’t just any piece of digital property. It was dot-org, the cyber neighborhood that is home to big nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations like the United Nations (un.org) and NPR (npr.org), and to little ones like neighborhood clubs.

The deal was met with a fierce backlash. Critics argued that a less commercial corner of the internet should not be controlled by a profit-driven private equity firm, as a matter of both principle and practice. Online petitions and letters of concern came from hundreds of organizations, thousands of individuals and four Democrats in Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Rarely has the acronym-strewn realm of internet addresses — so-called domain names — stirred such passion.

Now, a group of respected internet pioneers and nonprofit leaders is offering an alternative to Ethos Capital’s bid: a nonprofit cooperative corporation. The incorporation papers for the new entity, the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants, were filed this week in California.

The goal of the group is not only to persuade the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees internet domain names, to stop the sale. It is also to persuade ICANN to hand it the management of dot-org instead.

“This is a better alternative,” said Esther Dyson, who served as the first chair of ICANN, from 1998 to 2000, and is one of seven directors of the new cooperative. “If you’re owned by private equity, your incentive is to make a profit. Our incentive is to serve and protect nonprofits and the public.”

Since 2003, dot-org has been run by the Public Interest Registry, which is controlled by the Internet Society, a nonprofit that helps develop internet standards, education programs and policy. The registry holds a contract to manage dot-org, which was renewed last year for 10 more years. With a sale to Ethos Capital, the Internet Society would gain an endowment to fund its operations and get out of the business of operating dot-org.

In buying the Public Interest Registry, Ethos Capital would acquire the rights to run dot-org and collect annual fees from the nearly 10.5 million registered dot-org names, held by both nonprofits and domain-name speculators. Those yearly fees are $10 to $20 on average, but can be far higher for big sites that buy several names to protect their brand and get added services like security against online attacks.

Opponents of the private-equity sale said they feared that to make an attractive profit on its pricey deal, Ethos Capital would have to raise prices, cut expenses, skimp on service — and most likely sell users’ data.

Ethos Capital said those concerns were unfounded.

In a blog post in December, Erik Brooks, the firm’s founder, said that “we understand that change brings uncertainty and concern,” which was reflected in “alarmist statements.”

Ethos Capital, Mr. Brooks said, wants to invest in dot-org “for the reputation of the platform and the values it represents in the marketplace.” He said his firm planned to build on that asset.

Big price increases have been a major concern for critics of the deal. When ICANN renewed the 10-year contract with the Public Interest Registry last year, it removed a price cap that limited price increases to 10 percent a year at most. That move was part of a broader ICANN policy to ease price controls across all internet domains.

Ethos Capital has pledged to adhere to the 10 percent cap, though it would have no contractual obligation to do so. In blog posts, the private equity firm said it planned to invest in new services and clamp down on spam, security attacks and other abuse launched from some illicit dot-org domains.

Some nonprofits worry that any cleanup effort could result in censorship, even if inadvertently. As the owner of the registry for dot-org, Ethos Capital would manage the acceptable business practices and conduct for dot-org domains. The same freedoms that open the door to extremist groups on some dot-org sites, nonprofit leaders say, also help protect free speech on public-interest dot-org sites in developing countries with authoritarian governments.

Ethos Capital said it would never facilitate censorship. It has also vowed to set up an independent “stewardship council” to monitor its management of the dot-org network.

Since the deal was announced, Mr. Brooks and top executives of the Internet Society and the Public Interest Registry have spoken with skeptics in person, in web sessions and on conference calls, seeking to reassure them that dot-org would be in safe hands. And on Tuesday, they submitted a detailed response to the questions raised by the four members of Congress.

But whether the trust-building campaign has made progress is uncertain. Amy Sample Ward, the chief executive of NTEN, a nonprofit that assists other nonprofits with technology, is unconvinced.

“The internet was meant to be this democratizing force around the world, and nonprofits do that,” Ms. Sample Ward said. By contrast, she said, Ethos Capital is a creature of the “capitalist-based internet industrial complex.”

For the Ethos Capital deal to succeed, ICANN must give its approval. In December, it sent out a request for more information about the proposed transaction. ICANN has not indicated the timing of a decision, but one is expected early this year.

The newly formed cooperative group is hoping it can keep dot-org out of the for-profit economy. “There is a common good here that is at risk of being undermined,” said William Woodcock, a director of the cooperative, who is the executive director of the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit that provides internet operational support for domains.

The cooperative corporation, which would run dot-org, collect fees and distribute savings back to the nonprofit users, is an “alternative model with a long-term commitment to the open and noncommercial internet,” said Katherine Maher, a director who is the chief executive of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit parent of Wikipedia.

“There are some things that operate better noncommercially, and that’s O.K.,” she said.

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Sonos, Squeezed by the Tech Giants, Sues Google

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — In 2013, Sonos scored a coup when Google agreed to design its music service to work easily with Sonos’s home speakers. For the project, Sonos handed over the effective blueprints to its speakers.

It felt like a harmless move, Sonos executives said. Google was an internet company and didn’t make speakers.

The executives now say they were naïve.

On Tuesday, Sonos sued Google in two federal court systems, seeking financial damages and a ban on the sale of Google’s speakers, smartphones and laptops in the United States. Sonos accused Google of infringing on five of its patents, including technology that lets wireless speakers connect and synchronize with one another.

Sonos’s complaints go beyond patents and Google. Its legal action is the culmination of years of growing dependence on both Google and Amazon, which then used their leverage to squeeze the smaller company, Sonos executives said.

Sonos advertises its speakers on Google and sells them on Amazon. It built their music services and talking virtual assistants directly into its products. Sonos workers correspond via Gmail, and run the business off Amazon’s cloud-computing service.

Then Google and Amazon came out with their own speakers, undercutting Sonos’s prices and, according to Sonos executives, stealing its technology. Google and Amazon each now sell as many speakers in a few months as Sonos sells in one year.

Like many companies under the thumb of Big Tech, Sonos groused privately for years. But over the past several months, Patrick Spence, Sonos’s chief executive, decided he couldn’t take it anymore.

Image
Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

“Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology,” Mr. Spence said in a statement. “Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We’re left with no choice but to litigate.”

Sonos executives said they had decided to sue only Google because they couldn’t risk battling two tech giants in court at once. Yet Mr. Spence and congressional staff members have discussed his testifying to the House antitrust subcommittee soon about his company’s issues with them.

Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesman, said Google and Sonos had discussed both companies’ intellectual property for years, “and we are disappointed that Sonos brought these lawsuits instead of continuing negotiations in good faith.”

“We dispute these claims and will defend them vigorously,” he added.

A spokeswoman for Amazon, Natalie Hereth, said the company did not infringe on Sonos’s technology. “The Echo family of devices and our multiroom music technology were developed independently by Amazon,” she said.

Sonos sued Google in Federal District Court in Los Angeles and in front of the United States International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial body that decides trade cases and can block the import of goods that violate patents. Sonos sued Google over only five patents, but said it believed Google and Amazon had each violated roughly 100. Sonos did not say how much it sought in damages.

The evolving relationship between Sonos and the tech giants reflects an increasingly common complaint in the corporate world: As the biggest tech companies have become essential to reach customers and build businesses, they have exploited that leverage over smaller companies to steal their ideas and their customers.

After mostly keeping those grievances private for years because they feared retaliation, many smaller companies are now speaking out, emboldened in an age of growing scrutiny of America’s largest tech firms.

Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times
Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

Mr. Spence and other Sonos executives said they had agonized over the decision to sue Google, largely because Google still underpins their business. Sonos executives suspect that their pressure on the patent issue has complicated other areas of the relationship, though they can’t say for sure.

After Sonos intensified its demands that Google license its technology, Google pushed Sonos to comply with stricter rules for using Google’s virtual assistant. Those proposed rules included a mandate to turn over the planned name, design and targeted start date of its future products — which Google would compete directly against — six months in advance, up from 45 days in the current deal, Sonos executives said.

“The fear of retaliation is a real fear. Any of these companies could bury them tomorrow. Google could bury them in their search results. Amazon can bury them in their search results,” said Sally Hubbard, a former assistant attorney general in New York’s antitrust bureau who now works at Open Markets Institute, a think tank. “It’s really hard to find any industry where corporations are not dependent on one of the big tech giants.”

Fifteen years ago, home sound systems typically meant a tangled network of wires and speakers and complicated instructions on how to make it all work. Then Sonos came along in 2005, promising wireless sound throughout a house, seamlessly controlled from a hand-held device. Its early ads boasted: “Any song. Any room.

Sonos quickly began patenting its innovations, a stockpile of intellectual property it now proudly displays on its website.

Its devices made life a bit more comfortable for consumers who could afford them, and they made for a nice little business for Sonos, which is based a few miles from the Southern California coast in Santa Barbara. Sales of its devices took off after the advent of the smartphone and music streaming. Sonos now employs about 1,500 people and sells more than $1 billion in speakers a year.

When Sonos teamed up with Google in 2013, it gave Google engineers detailed diagrams on how its speakers interacted wirelessly with one another. At the time, Google was not a competitor.

Two years later, Google released a small device that could turn an old speaker into a wireless one, much like Sonos’s original product. A year after that, Google released its own wireless speaker, the Google Home. The device, marketed around Google’s talking virtual assistant, quickly began outselling Sonos’s offerings.

Sonos bought the Google devices and used a technique called packet sniffing that monitored how the speakers were communicating. They discovered that Google’s devices used Sonos’s approach for solving a variety of technological challenges. Sonos executives said they had found that Amazon’s Echo speakers also copied Sonos technology.

In August 2016, Sonos told Google that it was infringing. Google had little response. As Google released more products, it violated more patents, Sonos executives said. Over the next three years, Sonos told Google four more times, eventually handing over a list of 100 patents it believed Google had violated. Google responded that Sonos was also infringing on its patents, Sonos executives said, though it never provided much detail.

When Sonos delivered a proposed model for Google to pay licensing fees, Google returned its own model that resulted in its paying almost nothing, Sonos executives said.

Sonos executives said their complaints were hardly just about patents, however. They are concerned that Google and Amazon are flooding the market with cheap speakers that they subsidize because they are not merely conduits for music, like Sonos’s devices, but rather another way to sell goods, show ads and collect data.

Sonos’s entry-level speaker is about $200. Amazon and Google’s cheapest speakers are $50, and they often offer them at much steeper discounts.

In the third quarter of 2019, Amazon shipped 10.5 million speakers and Google six million, according to Strategy Analytics. For the 12 months ending in September, Sonos said it had sold 6.1 million speakers.

“Amazon and Google are making it a mass-market product at a price point that Sonos can’t match,” said Jack Narcotta, a Strategy Analytics analyst.

Amazon said that it was focused on creating the best experience for customers and that its virtual assistant had generated “billions of dollars” for developers and device makers.

To compete, Sonos has had to yield even more power to the companies. When consumers became hooked on Google’s and Amazon’s virtual assistants, Sonos also built them into its speakers.

But Sonos had a strategy to still stand out on store shelves. Instead of being locked into using just one of the assistants, Sonos customers could use both simultaneously. Sonos engineers patented the technology to enable the assistants to work side by side, and executives lobbied Amazon and Google to let it happen.

At first, the companies hated the idea. Hours before a New York news conference in October 2017, Sonos was preparing to unveil its first speaker with virtual assistants when the Amazon product chief Dave Limp called Mr. Spence. Mr. Limp had just found out that Google would also be onstage, and he said Amazon was now pulling out of the event as a result, according to two people familiar with the conversation. After negotiations, Amazon relented.

Sonos executives said Google and Amazon had ultimately forced them to make users select one assistant when setting up their speaker. Amazon said it had never asked Sonos to force users to choose its assistant or Google’s version.

Amazon later changed its position and joined an alliance with Sonos and other companies to make virtual assistants like Alexa function together. Google, along with Apple and Samsung, did not join the alliance.

Google has maintained, Sonos executives said, that it will pull its assistant from Sonos’s speakers if it works alongside any assistant from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft or Baidu, the Chinese internet company. Sonos has followed Google’s orders.

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Bosworth, Andrew (1982- ) Computers and the Internet Data-Mining and Database Marketing Facebook Inc News and News Media Online Advertising Parscale, Brad (1976- ) Political Advertising Presidential Election of 2020 Rumors and Misinformation Russian Interference in 2016 US Elections and Ties to Trump Associates Social Media Uncategorized

Lord of the Rings, 2020 and Stuffed Oreos: Read the Andrew Bosworth Memo

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, a longtime Facebook executive and confidant of Mark Zuckerberg, wrote a long memo on the company’s internal network.

In the post, titled “Thoughts for 2020,” Mr. Bosworth — who oversaw Facebook’s advertising efforts during the 2016 election and is now in charge of the company’s virtual and augmented reality division — admitted that President Trump’s savvy use of Facebook’s advertising tools “very well may lead to” his re-election. But he maintained that the company should not change its policies on political advertising, saying that doing so in order to avert a victory by Mr. Trump would be a misuse of power, comparing it to a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.”

Mr. Bosworth, who is seen by some inside Facebook as a proxy of sorts for Mr. Zuckerberg, also weighed in on a variety of issues that have vexed Facebook for the past few years, including data privacy scandals, Russian interference, political polarization and the debate over whether Facebook is healthy for society.

Here is the full post as written:

The election of Donald Trump immediately put a spotlight on Facebook. While the intensity and focus of that spotlight may be unfair I believe it isn’t unjust. Scrutiny is warranted given our position in society as the most prominent of a new medium. I think most of the criticisms that have come to light have been valid and represent real areas for us to serve our community better. I don’t enjoy having our flaws exposed, but I consider it far better than the alternative where we remain ignorant of our shortcomings.

One trap I sometimes see people falling into is to dismiss all feedback when they can invalidate one part of it. I see that with personal feedback and I see it happening with media coverage. The press often gets so many details wrong it can be hard to trust the veracity of their conclusions. Dismissing the whole because of flaws in parts is a mistake. The media has limited information to work with (by our own design!) and they sometimes get it entirely wrong but there is almost always some critical issue that motivated them to write which we need to understand.

It is worth looking at the 2016 Election which set this chain of events in motion. I was running our ads organization at the time of the election and had been for the four years prior (and for one year after). It is worth reminding everyone that Russian Interference was real but it was mostly not done through advertising. $100,000 in ads on Facebook can be a powerful tool but it can’t buy you an American election, especially when the candidates themselves are putting up several orders of magnitude more money on the same platform (not to mention other platforms).

Instead, the Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public for example by hosting Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protest events in the same city on the same day. The people who shows up to those events were real even if the event coordinator was not. Likewise the groups of Americans being fed partisan content was real even if those feeding them were not. The organic reach they managed sounds very big in absolute terms and unfortunately humans are bad at contextualizing big numbers. Whatever reach they managed represents an infinitesimal fraction of the overall content people saw in the same period of time and certainly over the course of an election across all media.

So most of the information floating around that is widely believed isn’t accurate. But who cares? It is certainly true that we should have been more mindful of the role both paid and organic content played in democracy and been more protective of it. On foreign interference, Facebook has made material progress and while we may never be able to fully eliminate it I don’t expect it to be a major issue for 2020.

Misinformation was also real and related but not the same as Russian interference. The Russians may have used misinformation alongside real partisan messaging in their campaigns, but the primary source of misinformation was economically motivated. People with no political interest whatsoever realized they could drive traffic to ad-laden websites by creating fake headlines and did so to make money. These might be more adequately described as hoaxes that play on confirmation bias or conspiracy theory. In my opinion this is another area where the criticism is merited. This is also an area where we have made dramatic progress and don’t expect it to be a major issue for 2020.

It is worth noting, as it is relevant at the current moment, that misinformation from the candidates themselves was not considered a major shortcoming of political advertising on FB in 2016 even though our policy then was the same as it is now. These policies are often covered by the press in the context of a profit motive. That’s one area I can confidently assure you the critics are wrong. Having run our ads business for some time it just isn’t a factor when we discuss the right thing to do. However, given that those conversations are private I think we can all agree the press can be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion. Perhaps we could do a better job exposing the real cost of these mistakes to make it clear that revenue maximization would have called for a different strategy entirely.

Cambridge Analytica is one of the more acute cases I can think of where the details are almost all wrong but I think the scrutiny is broadly right. Facebook very publicly launched our developer platform in 2012 in an environment primarily scrutinizing us for keeping data to ourselves. Everyone who added an application got a prompt explaining what information it would have access to and at the time it included information from friends. This may sound crazy in a 2020 context but it received widespread praise at the time. However the only mechanism we had for keeping data secure once it was shared was legal threats which ultimately didn’t amount to much for companies which had very little to lose. The platform didn’t build the value we had hoped for our consumers and we shut this form of it down in 2014.

The company Cambridge Analytica started by running surveys on Facebook to get information about people. It later pivoted to be an advertising company, part of our Facebook Marketing Partner program, who other companies could hire to run their ads. Their claim to fame was psychographic targeting. This was pure snake oil and we knew it; their ads performed no better than any other marketing partner (and in many cases performed worse). I personally regret letting them stay on the FMP program for that reason alone. However at the time we thought they were just another company trying to find an angle to promote themselves and assumed poor performance would eventually lose them their clients. We had no idea they were shopping an old Facebook dataset that they were supposed to have deleted (and certified to us in writing that they had).

When Trump won, Cambridge Analytica tried to take credit so they were back on our radar but just for making [expletive] claims about their own importance. I was glad when the Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale called them out for it. Later on, we found out from journalists that they had never deleted the database and had instead made elaborate promises about its power for advertising. Our comms team decided it would be best to get ahead of the journalists and pull them from the platform. This was a huge mistake. It was not only bad form (justifiably angering the journalists) but we were also fighting the wrong battle. We wanted to be clear this had not been a data breach (which, to be fair to us, it absolutely was not) but the real concern was the existence of the dataset no matter how it happened. We also sent the journalists legal letters advising them not to use the term “breech” which was received normally by the NYT (who agreed) and aggressively by The Guardian (who forged ahead with the wrong terminology, furious about the letter) in spite of it being a relatively common practice I am told.

In practical terms, Cambridge Analytica is a total non-event. They were snake oil salespeople. The tools they used didn’t work, and the scale they used them at wasn’t meaningful. Every claim they have made about themselves is garbage. Data of the kind they had isn’t that valuable to being with and worse it degrades quickly, so much so as to be effectively useless in 12-18 months. In fact the United Kingdom Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) seized all the equipment at Cambridge Analytica and found that there was zero data from any UK citizens! So surely, this is one where we can ignore the press, right? Nope. The platform was such a poor move that the risks associated were bound to come to light. That we shut it down in 2014 and never paid the piper on how bad it was makes this scrutiny justified in my opinion, even if it is narrowly misguided.

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

To be clear, I’m no fan of Trump. I donated the max to Hillary. After his election I wrote a post about Trump supporters that I’m told caused colleagues who had supported him to feel unsafe around me (I regret that post and deleted shortly after).

But Parscale and Trump just did unbelievable work. They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person. The use of custom audiences, video, ecommerce, and fresh creative remains the high water mark of digital ad campaigns in my opinion.

That brings me to the present moment, where we have maintained the same ad policies. It occurs to me that it very well may lead to the same result. As a committed liberal I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result. So what stays my hand?

I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

The philosopher John Rawls reasoned that the only moral way to decide something is to remove yourself entirely from the specifics of any one person involved, behind a so called “Veil of Ignorance.” That is the tool that leads me to believe in liberal government programs like universal healthcare, expanding housing programs, and promoting civil rights. It is also the tool that prevents me from limiting the reach of publications who have earned their audience, as distasteful as their content may be to me and even to the moral philosophy I hold so dear.

That doesn’t mean there is no line. Things like incitement of violence, voter suppression, and more are things that same moral philosophy would safely allow me to rule out. But I think my fellow liberals are a bit too, well, liberal when it comes to calling people Nazi’s.

If we don’t want hate mongering politicians then we must not elect them. If they are getting elected then we have to win hearts and minds. If we change the outcomes without winning the minds of the people who will be ruled then we have a democracy in name only. If we limit what information people have access to and what they can say then we have no democracy at all.

This conversation often raises the alarm around filter bubbles, but that is a myth that is easy to dispel. Ask yourself how many newspapers and news programs people read/watched before the internet. If you guessed “one and one” on average you are right, and if you guessed those were ideologically aligned with them you are right again. The internet exposes them to far more content from other sources (26% more on Facebook, according to our research). This is one that everyone just gets wrong.

The focus on filter bubbles causes people to miss the real disaster which is polarization. What happens when you see 26% more content from people you don’t agree with? Does it help you empathize with them as everyone has been suggesting? Nope. It makes you dislike them even more. This is also easy to prove with a thought experiment: whatever your political leaning, think of a publication from the other side that you despise. When you read an article from that outlet, perhaps shared by an uncle or nephew, does it make you rethink your values? Or does it make you retreat further into the conviction of your own correctness? If you answered the former, congratulations you are a better person than I am. Every time I read something from Breitbart I get 10% more liberal.

What does all of this say about the nature of the algorithmic rewards? Everyone points to top 0.1% content as being acutely polarized but how steep are the curves? What does the top 1% or 5% look like? And what is the real reach across those curves when compared to other content? I think the call for algorithmic transparency can sometimes be overblown but being more transparent about this type of data would likely be healthy.

What I expect people will find is that the algorithms are primarily exposing the desires of humanity itself, for better or worse. This is a Sugar, Salt, Fat problem. The book of that name tells a story ostensibly about food but in reality about the limited effectiveness of corporate paternalism. A while ago Kraft foods had a leader who tried to reduce the sugar they sold in the interest of consumer health. But customers wanted sugar. So instead he just ended up reducing Kraft market share. Health outcomes didn’t improve. That CEO lost his job. The new CEO introduced quadruple stuffed Oreos and the company returned to grace. Giving people tools to make their own decisions is good but trying to force decisions upon them rarely works (for them or for you).

In these moments people like to suggest that our consumers don’t really have free will. People compare social media to nicotine. I find that wildly offensive, not to me but to addicts. I have seen family members struggle with alcoholism and classmates struggle with opioids. I know there is a battle for the terminology of addiction but I side firmly with the neuroscientists. Still, while Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation.

At the end of the day we are forced to ask what responsibility individuals have for themselves. Set aside substances that directly alter our neurochemistry unnaturally. Make costs and trade-offs as transparent as possible. But beyond that each of us must take responsibility for ourselves. If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position. My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.

To bring this uncharacteristically long and winding essay full circle, I wanted to start a discussion about what lessons people are taking away from the press coverage. My takeaway is that we were late on data security, misinformation, and foreign interference. We need to get ahead of polarization and algorithmic transparency. What are the other big topics people are seeing and where are we on those?

Categories
3-D Devices and Effects Batteries Computers and the Internet Electric and Hybrid Vehicles Electronics Laboratories and Scientific Equipment Lithium (Metal) Palacios, Tomas Physics San Francisco (Calif) Singapore Uncategorized Urban, Jeff your-feed-science Zheng, Liu

The Superpowers of Super-Thin Materials

In recent years, internet-connected devices have colonized a range of new frontiers — wrists, refrigerators, doorbells, cars. But to some researchers, the spread of the “internet of things” has not gone nearly far enough.

“What if we were able to embed electronics in absolutely everything,” Tomás Palacios, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said recently. “What if we did energy harvesting from solar cells inside highways, and had strain sensors embedded in tunnels and bridges to monitor the concrete? What if we could look outside and get the weather forecast in the window? Or bring electronics to my jacket to monitor my health?”

In January of 2019, Dr. Palacios and his colleagues published a paper in Nature describing an invention that would bring that future a little closer: an antenna that can absorb the ever-thickening ambient soup of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular signals and efficiently turn it into usable electrical energy.

The key to the technology is a promising new material called molybdenum disulfide, or MoS₂, that can be deposited in a layer just three atoms thick. In the world of engineering, things can’t get much thinner.

And thin is useful. For instance, a layer of MoS₂ could wrap around a desk and turn it into a laptop charger, without any power cords.

As researchers like Dr. Palacios see it, two-dimensional materials will be the linchpin of the internet of everything. They will be “painted” on bridges and form the sensors to watch for strain and cracks. They will cover windows with transparent layers that become visible only when information is displayed. And if his team’s radio wave-absorber succeeds, it will power those ever-present electronics. Increasingly, the future looks flat.

“There’s been absolutely explosive interest,” said Jeff Urban, a 2-D materials researcher at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California. “There’s no other way to characterize it.”

Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times

The craze for 2-D chemistry began in 2004, when two researchers at the University of Liverpool used cellophane tape to peel one-atom-thick layers of carbon from chunks of graphite, forming graphene. Graphene is identical to graphite and diamond in composition, but the thinness gives it very different properties: It is flexible, transparent, extremely strong and an exceptional electrical and thermal conductor.

Researchers quickly set out to make all kinds of new and improved gadgets from it. Recently several companies released headphones with diaphragms — the vibrating membranes that produce sound in audio devices — made of graphene. Some paint manufacturers are adding graphene to their formulas to make longer-lasting coatings. Last October Huawei introduced the Mate 20 X, a large, powerful cellphone that uses graphene to help cool the processor. Samsung used graphene to develop a faster-charging battery, which may appear in phones in the near future.

Dr. Urban is working with 2-D materials to improve fuel cells, which have drawn interest as a clean propulsion system for green vehicles. Most fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen, but even under high pressure hydrogen gas takes up several times more space than a comparable amount of gasoline, making it impractical to use in automobiles.

Instead, Dr. Urban is embedding hydrogen atoms in solids, which are much denser than gases. In March, he and his colleagues announced a new storage medium: tiny magnesium crystals wrapped in narrow strips called graphene nanoribbons. Hydrogen stored in this manner, they found, could provide nearly as much energy as the same volume of gasoline, while weighing much less.

Dr. Urban compared the process to baking chocolate chip cookies, where magnesium is the chocolate chip — the key part — because it holds the hydrogen. “We want a chocolate chip cookie with as many chocolate chips as possible,” he said, and graphene nanoribbon makes excellent cookie dough. The nanoribbon also helps hydrogen enter and exit the magnesium crystals quickly while boxing out oxygen, which competes with hydrogen for space in the crystals.

Dr. Urban peers into the super-thin realm at the Advanced Light Source, a domed laboratory with an expansive view of San Francisco and the neighboring bay. There, electrons are accelerated to near the speed of light, generating powerful X-rays that can be used to finely probe the atomic structure of materials.

At the A.L.S., Dr. Urban and his colleagues learned exactly how graphene wrapped around and bonded tightly to magnesium. Those bonds, they believe, are what make the composite material stable over long periods — an important trait for real-world use.

Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Elsewhere, researchers are taking super-thin layers of materials and stacking them into three-dimensional blocks that have properties distinct from both 2-D and conventional 3-D materials.

Kwabena Bediako, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, published a study last year in Nature that described how he and his colleagues had embedded lithium ions between many layers of two-dimensional materials, including graphene.

“We start out with a piece of bread, slap on some mayo, bring it down on cheese, bring it down on some ham,” he said. “You can do that as many times as you want and create a sandwich.”

By varying the different layers in the three-dimensional stack, the researchers were able to fine-tune how the materials stored lithium, which could lead to the development of new, high-capacity batteries for electronic devices.

Xining Zang, a postdoctoral candidate in materials science at M.I.T., recently discovered a surprisingly easy way to build stacks of 2-D materials using gelatin, the ingredient that gives Jell-O and marshmallows their structure. She and several colleagues combined gelatin, metal ions and water. The gelatin assembled itself into layers (as it does when it forms Jell-O), thereby arranging the metal ions into layers, too. Some of the carbon in the gelatin then reacted with the metal to produce two-dimensional sheets of metal carbides; these worked as catalysts to help split water into oxygen and hydrogen, a process that could be employed to generate electricity in fuel cells.

“I hesitate to say the technique was crude, because it was really elegant when you think about it,” said Nate Hohman, a staff scientist formerly at the Molecular Foundry and an author on the paper. “It’s right at this interface between high-tech and low-tech.”

One place where two-dimensional materials are blossoming is in Singapore, in the lab of Liu Zheng, at Nanyang Technological University. Singapore is known as the Garden City, and the tiny country has zealously filled its land with greenery — including at the university, which has placed gardens in spare nooks all around its modern buildings.

Dr. Zheng sees his research as a different kind of cultivation. “I’m a gardener,” he said. “There is a 2-D garden, with all kinds of flowers. They’re all beautiful.”

Last year Dr. Zheng and his colleagues drastically expanded this garden by creating dozens of new 2-D materials from a class of compounds called transition metal chalcogenides, or T.M.C.s. The key discovery was in using ordinary table salt to lower the temperatures at which the metals are typically melted; this allowed the metals to be vaporized and deposited in thin films.

Credit…Amos Zeeberg
Credit…Amos Zeeberg
Credit…Amos Zeeberg
Credit…Amos Zeeberg

“One day a student told me, ‘I can make all of the T.M.C.s with salt,’” Dr. Zheng said. “I was really surprised. This was my dream for many years.”

One set of shelves in Dr. Zheng’s busy lab is stacked with clear, airtight containers; these hold silicon wafers, on which the 2-D materials are deposited. The films often form a visible triangle or hexagon, according to the geometric structures of the crystals in each material.

After the films are deposited, Dr. Zheng’s team moves to a nearby lab to study the resulting structures in detail. The room is dominated by a transmission electron microscope that stands a dozen feet tall and weighs a ton and a half — a giant device for viewing individual atoms.

Many T.M.C.s, including the MoS₂ used by Dr. Palacios to absorb radio waves, show potential for various industrial uses. The two-dimensional platinum selenide made in the Singapore lab could make for cheaper fuel cells, which typically use the precious metal platinum to separate a hydrogen atom’s proton from its electron. Switching to two-dimensional platinum selenide could reduce the amount of platinum used by 99 percent, Dr. Zheng said. Nanyang Technological University is in talks with manufacturers about commercializing the technology. The future isn’t yet two-dimensional, but it’s getting closer.

“I see really great commercial potential of this material,” Dr. Zheng said. “We can make a huge impact in the market.”

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Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times