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Amazon’s HQ2 Aimed to Show Tech Can Boost Cities. Now It’s on Pause

Amazon’s HQ2 Aimed to Show Tech Can Boost Cities. Now It’s on Pause

After a dramatic competition that pitted US cities against one another, years of contested planning, and claims of unwavering commitment despite the pandemic, Amazon now says its plan for a second headquarters, aka HQ2, is on pause. The company said today that it will delay construction of more than half of the millions of square feet of space in a campus planned for Arlington, Virginia, including a twisting tower meant to become a signature landmark for the city. 

Amazon, which is still in the process of laying off more than 18,000 corporate workers, did not set a new date for construction to resume in Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Arlington County board chair Christian Dorsey says the county learned “recently” of the planned pause and does not know when construction will resume.

Amazon also declined to provide any timeline for construction to resume. “Our second headquarters has always been a multiyear project, and we remain committed to Arlington, Virginia, and the greater Capital Region,” says John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities.

Amazon has pledged to use the project, the first phase of which already dominates the Crystal City neighborhood in which it is located, to eventually bring at least 25,000 high-paid workers to Virginia. Arlington and other cities, including Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin, Texas, competed to win the project in part to secure a tranche of elite workers and associated tax revenue. How many people or new tax dollars Amazon will bring to Arlington, and on what timeline, is now unclear.

Amazon originally planned to build its second HQ in two phases. The first featured two large structures housing about 2 million square feet of office space, and the second another three office buildings and a centerpiece tower called the Helix, a structure something like a cross between a custard swirl and the poop emoji.

HQ2’s first phase, known as Metropolitan Park, will open on schedule in June of this year, Amazon says. But the company no longer has a date for construction of the larger second phase and its signature swirl, all of which was originally planned to include about 2.8 million more square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet for retail. 

That ratio could theoretically change. While Amazon spokesperson Zach Goldsztejn says that Amazon’s long-term commitment remains the same, the construction pause will allow the company more time to study how its space is best used. In February the company announced that it will end its flexible, entirely remote work policy and require workers to be in the office three days a week beginning May 1. The regime change will likely shift how employees use the company’s office spaces.

“It’s not incredibly surprising that Amazon is taking a pause before beginning the second phase,” Dorsey said on a briefing call today about the company’s project. “If you look at the world, there is a lot of uncertainty about what is ahead. Everyone from every sector is thinking about its long-term plans in a new light, and sadly we don’t all have all of the answers.”

An Apple Store Worker Is the New Face of US Labor Law Reform

An Apple Store Worker Is the New Face of US Labor Law Reform

The percentage of US workers represented by a union has fallen for decades, down to 10 percent last year. But unions have recently scored wins in tech, drawing in the retail clerks at Apple, warehouse workers at Amazon, video game testers at Microsoft, and coders in corporate offices at places like Google. Pockets of workers disenchanted with tech companies’ handling of sensitive issues that include sexual harassment and military contracts have fueled organizing in recent years.

Tech companies have turned to playbooks typical of more traditionally unionized industries to fight back. A National Labor Relations Board regional office said in December that it is pursuing a case over allegations that Apple unfairly interfered with unionizing at an Atlanta store through captive audience meetings, interrogations of employees, and other coercive tactics. A hearing is scheduled for April. Employees ultimately withdrew plans for a vote in Atlanta last year.

The NLRB had said in the past that employer-led discussions about the drawbacks of unions do not violate workers’ rights to choose what to listen to. But the board has recently changed its view following a wave of appointments by the Biden administration, including General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, the agency’s top bureaucrat, who wrote a memo last April calling captive sessions illegal.

The PRO Act is an attempt to lock more union-friendly policies into law to prevent a future administration or NLRB reversing Biden-era rulings. Beyond addressing captive audience meetings, the legislation would set a new standard for defining independent contractors, which could affect many tech companies; require all union members to pay dues; and allow new forms of strike. It would also hold executives accountable for violations of workers’ rights and let workers sue employers if the NLRB fails to prosecute their case. Other provisions broadly aim to limit the power of employers in influencing the outcome of organizing.

Civick says that before considering unionizing, she and her colleagues repeatedly raised concerns to managers but won little change. Their requests included greater wage increases for long-tenured employees and pay boosts for workers whose multilingual skills prove valuable with customers.

Most urgently, they asked Apple to rid their store’s backroom—where repairs happen, lunch breaks are had, and inventory is stored—of its awful stench. The area has flooded with sewage multiple times over the years, Civick says, and she has personally helped clean the mess a couple of times. Mall operator Simon Property Group did not respond to a request for comment.

The Oklahoma City store was the second Apple location to unionize, following one in Towson, Maryland, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. Several other stores—including in Des Moines, Iowa, and New York City—have discussed unionizing, according to the Communications Workers of America labor group aiding the workers in those areas. The momentum, “it’s just beginning, honestly,” Civick says. (Disclosure: The WIRED Union, of which I am a member, is a unit of the NewsGuild of New York, whose parent organization is the CWA.)

The PRO Act requires mediation and arbitration to help settle contract disputes, but it may not solve every problem for Civick and other workers. The Oklahoma City union is still waiting for Apple to schedule bargaining sessions to thrash out their first contract. Companies sometimes hope that stalling will weaken support for a newly formed union or cause it to dissolve altogether. Civick says that will not happen at her store. “We’re still completely overworked and understaffed, and there’s not been much movement on Apple’s side to improve either of those conditions.”

Twitter Is No Longer a Creative Haven

Twitter Is No Longer a Creative Haven

WIRED has written frequently of late about Elon Musk’s Twitter, so forgive me for coming back to it—but for those of us as terminally online as I am, let me just ask: What the hell happened last weekend?

I woke up on Sunday morning to learn that Twitter was going to block all mentions of, or links to, “competing” services, from Instagram to Facebook, to Linktree of all places. It was claimed to be about “preventing free advertising” of the platform’s competitors and to “cut down on spam.” Of course, anyone with two neurons to rub together could tell that this was a cover story—you don’t need a journalist to tell you that—and the great link ban was mainly about stemming the flow of active and popular users to other platforms while controlling speech in the name of Musk’s mission to [checks notes] … protect free speech.

What was essentially a small online riot ensued, with Twitter users from all corners decrying the new policy. Within hours, not only had the company backtracked, but all mentions of the less-than-day-old policy had been scrubbed from Twitter feeds and the company website. It was a whirlwind for anyone who was online to see it. (Although if you missed it, I wouldn’t say you missed it, if you know what I mean.)

But I’m not here to speculate on the true motives behind Sunday’s whiplash; I don’t think that’s helpful. After all, intention and impact are separate things. Regardless of someone’s intention when they hit you in the face, they’ve still hit you in the face. Now you have to deal with the situation that they’ve created. So my thoughts instead turn—and I hope yours will also—to the people impacted by the weekend’s policy change. Those Twitter users who spent Sunday wondering whether the platform they used and trusted to find and promote their work, make connections with others in their field, and in many cases, rely on for income, would allow them to continue.

When we at WIRED talk about “platforms and power,” this is what we’re talking about. Of course, any steward of any platform, whether it’s a CEO, founder, or middle manager, has the unenviable job of setting and enforcing the policies and guidelines for that platform’s safe and legal use. That’s not in question. Without such rules, online spaces can go bad fast. What is an issue is when those platforms choose to actively harm their users through policy decisions, and when those changes are large enough to force users to either adapt or abandon ship. 

Let me explain: I’m lucky enough to know a lot of creatives as well as a lot of journalists and tech workers. When I woke up on Sunday to the news, it was delivered to me by tweets from artists terrified they’d be banned from Twitter for linking to their own portfolios and to platforms where they accept commissions for their artwork. I read horror stories from authors who were terrified that the Linktrees their publishers asked them to create to promote their books, reviews, and Goodreads profiles were suddenly bannable offenses on Twitter.

My friends on Twitch interrupted their streams to discuss the news, worried that they wouldn’t be able to tweet to announce they were starting a new stream, or add a link to their Twitter bio to help viewers find them. All of these things created the potential for lost income for people who, I would argue, need it more than the folks who made these policy decisions. After all, these same creators have the kind of disruptive, entrepreneurial spirit that everyone in Silicon Valley claims to want to foster and empower. 

Elon Musk’s Twitter Is Making Meta Look Smart

Elon Musk’s Twitter Is Making Meta Look Smart

It was the first day of April 2022, and I was sitting in a law firm’s midtown Manhattan conference room at a meeting of Meta’s Oversight Board, the independent body the scrutinizes its content decisions. And for a few minutes, it seemed that despair had set in.

The topic at hand was Meta’s controversial Cross Check program, which gave special treatment to posts from certain powerful users—celebrities, journalists, government officials, and the like. For years this program operated in secret, and Meta even misled the board on its scope. When details of the program were leaked to The Wall Street Journal, it became clear that millions of people received that special treatment, meaning their posts were less likely to be taken down when reported by algorithms or other users for breaking rules against things like hate speech. The idea was to avoid mistakes in cases where errors would have more impact—or embarrass Meta—because of the prominence of the speaker. Internal documents showed that Meta researchers had qualms about the project’s propriety. Only after that exposure did Meta ask the board to take a look at the program and recommend what the company should do with it.

The meeting I witnessed was part of that reckoning. And the tone of the discussion led me to wonder if the board would suggest that Meta shut down the program altogether, in the name of fairness. “The policies should be for all the people!” one board member cried out.

That didn’t happen. This week the social media world took a pause from lookie-looing the operatic content-moderation train wreck that Elon Musk is conducting at Twitter, as the Oversight Board finally delivered its Cross Check report, delayed because of foot-dragging by Meta in providing information. (It never did provide the board with a list identifying who got special permission to stave off a takedown, at least until someone took a closer look at the post.) The conclusions were scathing. Meta claimed that the program’s purpose was to improve the quality of its content decisions, but the board determined that it was more to protect the company’s business interests. Meta never set up processes to monitor the program and assess whether it was fulfilling its mission. The lack of transparency to the outside world was appalling. Finally, all too often Meta failed to deliver the quick personalized action that was the reason those posts were spared quick takedowns. There were simply too many of those cases for Meta’s team to handle. They frequently remained up for days before being given secondary consideration.

The prime example, featured in the original WSJ report, was a post from Brazilian soccer star Neymar, who posted a sexual image without its subject’s consent in September 2019. Because of the special treatment he got from being in the Cross Check elite, the image—a flagrant policy violation—garnered over 56 million views before it was finally removed. The program meant to reduce the impact of content decision mistakes wound up boosting the impact of horrible content.

Yet the board didn’t recommend that Meta shut down Cross Check. Instead, it called for an overhaul. The reasons are in no way an endorsement of the program but an admission of the devilish difficulty of content moderation. The subtext of the Oversight Board’s report was the hopelessness of believing it was possible to get things right. Meta, like other platforms that give users voice, had long emphasized growth before caution and hosted huge volumes of content that would require huge expenditures to police. Meta does spend many millions on moderation—but still makes millions of errors. Seriously cutting down on those mistakes costs more than the company is willing to spend. The idea of Cross Check is to minimize the error rate on posts from the most important or prominent people. When a celebrity or statesman used its platform to speak to millions, Meta didn’t want to screw up.

They Wanted a Baby, Then Twitter Fired Them

They Wanted a Baby, Then Twitter Fired Them

Jane—not her real name—has wanted a baby for years. The Twitter employee, whose identity has been protected because she is unable to speak to the press under the terms of her contract, has a blocked fallopian tube. “I’m not young,” Jane says. “So basically, my chances of conceiving naturally were quite low. But with this, my chance of conceiving naturally is almost zero percent. So the only option I have is IVF.”

But it’s now unlikely Jane will be able to receive IVF treatment. With the prospect of treatment perhaps just weeks away, she was fired on November 4, alongside 3,500 others in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover. Jane’s plight, and those of colleagues around the world, highlights an issue that Musk’s rapid firing of Twitter staff has caused: People are now left without benefits that were vital to their health—and their future. 

Twitter staff were able to access benefits through a provider called Carrot. “It was meant to be a path to parenthood,” says Jane. The idea was that Twitter employees could access around $24,000 a year, this year and next, to help those who were struggling to conceive get treatments that could help them have children. Twitter offered staff the opportunity to access various different fertility treatments, from intrauterine insemination (IUI) to in vitro fertilization (IVF). “It pays for things like consultants, and the actual IVF or the IUI as well,” Jane says. “It was amazing when they announced it.”

The policy, Jane understands, was introduced this year because one of Twitter’s senior management was going through something similar, and it became an issue that the company wanted to highlight and make support available for. “It was very well received,” Jane says. “A lot of people managed to make use of it.”

But now some people are stuck in the middle of the treatment.

Jane started the process of IVF under the Carrot benefit scheme—as she was entitled to as a Twitter employee. But the process takes time: A battery of tests investigate the reason why someone can’t conceive naturally, then recommend a path to enable them to try and have a child. The IVF treatment itself works at a measured pace, in part to ensure that those undergoing it can have counseling between appointments. And Jane, alongside other colleagues, is now trapped partway through the treatment cycle. When their employment stops, their health cover stops.

IVF treatment is not cheap. When Jane was fired from Twitter as part of its mass layoffs, she got in touch with the consultant she had previously seen under her Carrot deal. Continuing treatment would cost her $6,000. “That isn’t something everybody has got in the back of their pocket,” she says. 

A group of now ex-Twitter staff are in the same situation. Some have managed to use their benefits to pay quickly for a cycle of treatment. However, IVF usually requires two or three cycles to be successful. Others are being told they should cease their treatment immediately because they can’t get an appointment before their contract ends. “It’s a heartbreaking thing to be honest,” says Jane. “To be that close to having a child then being told that it’s gone.”