The New York Times Magazine recently published a lengthy cover story on “The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley—And Won;” it’s about the battle to pass a privacy law in the country’s most populous state. It’s great and definitely worth reading, but it forgot something: the woman who helped win the battle.
The story is about Californians for Consumer Privacy, a political committee led by multimillionaire real estate developer Alastair MacTaggart, who used California’s ballot initiative process to force the state to pass a law that gives its citizens the right to see what companies know about them and the right to stop the sale of that information. I am very familiar with the subject of the story and the people in it because I’ve been reporting on them since March. In June, I wrote a story for Gizmodo about lawmakers being forced to pass the law to prevent a more radical version being voted in by California citizens this November.
I went to lunch with the three-person team behind Californians for Consumer Privacy at the beginning of April; we had sushi near their tiny office in Oakland. It was MacTaggart, MacTaggart’s friend Rick Arney who works in finance, and Mary Stone Ross who had worked for the CIA and the House Intelligence Committee in D.C. “I was kind of on the other side of privacy,” Ross joked about her past. Ross was working full-time on the bill as the president of the Californians for Consumer Privacy, the political committee they’d formed to push the bill, while MacTaggart and Arney were in unpaid roles.
MacTaggart and Arney had dreamed up the idea of the ballot initiative during walks in their neighborhood, after a Google engineer told MacTaggart at a cocktail party that he should be scared of how much the company knew about him. After meeting Ross through friends in March 2016, MacTaggart asked whether she might want to work on the project and bring a lawyer’s eye into the research and writing of the proposed law. The three had spent the years since obsessed with winning this privacy battle. They hired a lawyer to help draft the proposed law; line-edited multiple versions of it; hired firms to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to get it on California’s ballot; brought in focus groups; met with tech lobbyists, privacy advocates, and lawmakers; built a website; done dozens of press interviews; and tried desperately, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to get other donors to contribute to the cause that had already eaten up $2 million from MacTaggart’s bank roll (it would later balloon to $3 million).
They all ordered the same dish at the sushi restaurant (the 49er roll). They finished each other’s sentences. They were incredibly earnest and their motives seemed pure. They all had young kids whose futures they worried about in a world without privacy. You couldn’t help but root for them. (Well, some people could.)
And in the end, as The New York Times’ Nick Confessore wrote, they won. They got the law passed and got a splashy, cover story in the magazine of the paper of record. It featured portraits of three “unlikely activists.” But according to the version of events Confessore wrote, only Alastair MacTaggart and Rick Arney won. Mary Stone Ross was nowhere to be found in the 8,500-word story. The third musketeer in Confessore’s story was instead Ashkan Soltani, an accomplished technologist that the team brought in last fall as a paid consultant to help edit a second draft of the bill and get the technological details right. (Disclosure: Soltani is a friend of mine.)
MacTaggart and Arney were “unlikely” activists in that they were businessmen with no real experience in politics or policy. But in some ways, the erased woman was the most unlikely activist of all. After attending Yale University and UVA law school, Ross went to work for the CIA in 2006, gathering intel on Russian spies in Cuba and Venezuela. In 2009, she went to work on the Hill for the House Intelligence Committee which oversees America’s spy agencies and left in 2010 when the Democrats lost control of the House. “I was on the committee when the [phone call and email metadata collection] program Edward Snowden exposed was still secret,” she told me. “We all knew it was going on, but it had a lot of oversight and it was just metadata.”
That’s what got her so fired up about privacy when she started working with MacTaggart. Companies were collecting far more granular data about Americans’ everyday online activity than the government, with little regulation. “People were so outraged over the NSA program, but not about the private collection,” she told me over the phone.
Ross was disappointed when she read Confessore’s story this week and saw her role—which had been documented in previous news coverage, including the Times’ own—erased, but she wasn’t completely surprised. In the final months before getting the bill passed, her working relationship with MacTaggart had soured because, she says, he wanted her to take a less active role in the press and in fundraising from tech notables. In the final stretch, Ross wasn’t as eager as MacTaggart and Arney to drop their ballot initiative in favor of a bill passed by lawmakers; she worried the bill was weaker than the law they’d drafted and that it will be weakened further by lobbyists before going into effect in 2020.
Because Ross was an official proponent of the ballot initiative, MacTaggart needed her signature to withdraw it once lawmakers passed the bill; she did so reluctantly at the end of June after a tense email exchange. The bill passed on Thursday, June 28. That Sunday, on July 1, MacTaggart emailed Ross thanking her for her work; he told her the campaign was over, that her email account would be shut down on Friday and that she should get her expenses in by then. But when she tried to log into her work email that Monday morning, she was locked out. Her name and bio were removed from the group’s website.
“The piece that’s missing from the #MeToo movement is that it’s not just sexual harassment,” said Ross in a phone call. “These men can change the narrative and rewrite history to write me out of it.”
MacTaggart characterizes it differently. He said that the article is focused on how the law got passed as bill AB-375, and that because Ross wasn’t supportive of the bill, she wasn’t as key to the narrative. (The main differences between the ballot initiative and the bill are that the latter allows companies to charge consumers more for privacy and doesn’t give consumers a private right to action, meaning they can’t sue companies that break the law, except in the case of a data breach.) Because Ross was less inclined to pass the bill through the legislature, she wasn’t included in the meeting with a lawmaker in Sacramento that Confessore attended while trailing MacTaggart for a day for the story. (Ross contends that she was still supportive of a legislative solution at that point.)
“I’ve been negotiating deals for 25 years. This is what I do,” said MacTaggart by phone. “The problem in this country right now is that no one wants to compromise.”
MacTaggart also suggested that Ross’s early contributions weren’t as crucial as she thinks, that she was a paid employee doing a job to support an idea he came up with, and that he was devoting most of his time to this over the last two years. He said that she’d originally been the official proponent of the ballot initiative to buy the group some extra months of invisibility before their opponents attacked, that it would have drawn more attention if a multimillionaire’s name was attached to it.
“People have told me this happens all the time on political campaigns, that people disagree about how they should go,” MacTaggart told me by phone. “I’m sad the whole thing didn’t end well, just personally.”
Personality conflicts inevitably happen in almost any workplace, including those of feel-good activists. Ross’s erasure from the lore of the law’s passage isn’t necessarily nefarious or a deliberate attempt to avoid giving a woman credit for her accomplishments. Those involved may have genuinely felt like she didn’t need to be mentioned because she didn’t support the compromise they’d made and wasn’t going to be part of the group moving forward.
“Mary Ross was an important part of the campaign team when we were all working full steam ahead to pass a ballot measure,” Robin Swanson, the campaign consultant for the group, told me by email. “Roles shifted when she made it clear she did not support a legislative compromise because she felt it wouldn’t go far enough.”
Plus, Ross’s contributions had been as “paid staff” as opposed to an “ideas person” who first helped to dream the ballot initiative up. The article likely doesn’t mention numerous other consultants, lawyers, and outside advisors who contributed to the effort—it isn’t like a film where you can include every single person involved in the credits at the end—but that’s how women’s roles can get erased from big projects. Their contribution of ideas gets overlooked, and they are said to have just done the “grunt work,” or responsibilities that are perceived as less crucial. But Ross was more than just the fifth Beatle, according to one outside advisor to the project.
“She was so instrumental all along the way. She was leading the train,” said a tech entrepreneur who advised the group on possible sources of funding and didn’t want to be named. “It seemed bizarre she wasn’t in the story.”
Ross wrote an email the night the story came out to Nicholas Confessore and various editors at The New York Times. “In the so-called year of the woman, it is astounding to me that the New York Times could publish an extensive article giving three men credit for my work, while eliminating my role entirely,” wrote Ross in the email, which also included a list of what she said were inaccuracies in the piece.
Steven Stern, the deputy research chief for the New York Times Magazine, reviewed the piece with everyone who worked on it, including the fact checkers, at her request. “I certainly understand your issues with the way the story was told and your frustrations that the work you did on the initiative was not acknowledged,” he wrote back. “However, after reviewing your concerns with Nicholas and the fact-checkers and editors who worked on the piece, we feel that none of the points you raise are factual errors meriting correction.”
I reached out to Nicholas Confessore directly to ask about Ross’s omission from the story. “I think it’s always fair to examine the question of inclusion when writing a narrative, perhaps especially when reporting on male-dominated industries such as tech or politics,” he wrote in a lengthy email that explained the narrative choices he made. He said that he didn’t correspond much with Ross nor spend time with her on the ground and that she “did not emerge as a major character—in the sense of planning or executing strategy or shaping the policy content—in my discussions with Robin, Alastair, or any of their allies and critics along the way. That may simply reflect the same problem you are concerned about.”
“To use the lingo of politics, she was a staffer, not a principal,” he added.
Storytelling is complicated. We journalists want to write stories for you, the readers, that you want to read and that will give you information you really need. That means we include details that make a story come alive—“[MacTaggart] is the kind of man who wears chinos with a braided belt; it is easy to picture him on a sailboat,” from Confessore’s story, for example—but omit details about process, bureaucracy or scientific exactitude that we (or our editors) determine to weigh the story down without contributing greatly to the readers’ canon of knowledge. We do this because, while we have endless words in the infinite scroll of the internet age, you, the reader, have limited attention and time. So we elide. We generalize. We cut “characters” who are important but who are not critical, and we often try to focus a story on one person, profile-style, rather than a cast of characters. My own story on the ballot initiative focused almost entirely on MacTaggart. This is why experts on a topic who read a journalist’s take on it are often disappointed; they know that there’s stuff missing.
Plus, unless they live through it themselves, journalists are dependent on sources to tell them what happened and who was important. We get snapshots in time; my snapshot was taken when Mary Ross was part of the gang of three while Confessore’s snapshot was taken while she was on the outs. If you really want to know what it’s like to be a journalist, watch Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a film in which you see a murder from the perspective of four different characters.
Absent Ross’s absence, Nicholas Confessore’s story is impressively comprehensive. It covers the activists’ two-year journey to create a privacy law in California in excruciating detail, as well as the under-regulation of data generally in the United States, the rapid rise of political lobbying by the tech giants in the last decade, the failure of the Obama Administration’s “Consumer Bill of Rights,” the Snowden and Cambridge Analytica scandals, Facebook’s attempt to weaken a biometric privacy bill in Illinois, and all the back-room dealings with tech lobbyists, lawmakers, and privacy advocacy groups that went into brokering a law that will go into effect in 2020.
It’s incredibly thorough. That’s why it’s so bizarre that it’s missing Mary Ross. She at least warranted a mention.