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Meet Nicole Wong, Obama's New Internet Privacy Czar

Susan Walsh/AP file photo

President Obama has tapped a former Googler nicknamed "the Decider" to handle the administration's approach to Internet privacy.

Nicole Wong, who's spent the last six months as Twitter's legal director, will report to White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, according to CNET. While she won't be the nation's chief privacy officer as CNET initially reported, she'll be considered a senior adviser, someone familiar with the matter told me. 

Wong already has a truckload of issues to sort through, and she hasn't even started yet. Last month, the administration threatened to veto the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, better known as CISPA, on privacy grounds. Reforms to the way government is allowed to access your emails for forensic purposes are also headed to a full Senate vote.

Wong earned her nickname during a touchy encounter with the government of Turkey. It was her responsibility to decide what to do with a set of YouTube clips that violated Turkey's ban on insulting Kemal Ataturk, the country's first president. Ankara wanted the videos taken down, Wong told Jeffrey Rosen in 2008. Wong chose to keep the videos up, but to block access to them from inside Turkey. In response, the government censored all Google products for the next two years.

As much power as she had, Wong told Rosen she was uncertain about whether her ad hoc approach to censorship and free and hate speech was sustainable, even then. As Rosen recounts in The New Republic's latest cover story:

"I think the Decider model is inconsistent," she said. "The Internet is big, and Google isn't the only one making these decisions."

There's clearly a need for something more institutionalized than a bunch of Silicon Valley employees judging for themselves (and the rest of us) what constitutes ban-worthy material, often on a case-by-case basis. One way to read Wong's comment is a statement of intent: In her new position, she'll be perfectly placed to help design a system that's clearer for everyone.

That won't necessarily mean it'll be better for everyone. If there's another lesson in Wong's encounter with Turkey, it's that overlapping priorities (sometimes even within the same company) frustrate attempts to build coherent privacy policies. And the White House isn't immune from that, as the tension between cybersecurity reforms and privacy protection have revealed.

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// July 23