Tekedra Mawakana didn’t mention NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his bombshell revelations about NSA spying in her remarks to the high-powered tech execs, lobbyists and guests assembled last month at Washington, D.C.’s historic Carnegie Library. She didn’t have to.
Speaking at a swank annual dinner for the Internet Association, a year-and-a-half-old D.C. trade group, Mawakana, the coalition’s inaugural chair, said the Web’s pre-eminent companies are ready to fight back against National Security Agency intrusions on privacy, promising to bring “more transparency and accountability to government surveillance.” The industry, under fire from politicians and users everywhere, needs to “stand united,” she urged.
It’s an unenviable position for Internet companies like Yahoo, stuck in a tug-of-war between government demands, user indignation and their own business interests. For Mawakana, it’s been a trial by fire ever since she made the leap from AOL, where she was senior vice president of government affairs, to take over as Yahoo’s head of global public policy, under the revamped leadership of CEO Marissa Mayer. That makes Mawakana the point person for the Internet giant’s strategy for U.S. government regulations, and global policy on everything from online commerce and Internet governance to censorship of the Web.
But the crisis also is giving Mawakana, a 42-year-old attorney, an opportunity to shine, at a time when Yahoo’s public profile is on the rise. That’s in large part thanks to Mayer, who’s helped make one of the Internet’s “old guard” sexy again with her splashy acquisitions, investments in original content, and the big IPO of China’s online commerce colussus, Alibaba, partly owned by Yahoo and the source of most of Yahoo’s market value. She’d been in the job just weeks when Snowden first began releasing classified documents on U.S. government surveillance programs, many of them tapping online communications systems run by companies like Google, Facebook and, yes, Yahoo. The revelations generated a fierce backlash and put the industry on the defensive.
Mawakana has never worked as a staffer in Congress or in the administration, making her a bit of an oddity in the lobbying world. But what she may lack in terms of “ins” with key lawmakers she makes up for with her command of the issues and straightforward, no-nonsense communications style, colleagues past and present say.Yet it’s also due to the new blood Mayer has brought into the company — people like Mawakana, whose in-depth knowledge of the complicated Internet policy world and ability to translate that into plain English have helped her shoot up the ranks of Beltway tech lobbying. Mawakana is also signaling that Yahoo is a force to be reckoned with, even as the company tries to sort out questions about its business and revenue model.
“Everybody has a lot of respect for her judgment [and] her expertise in the issue area, but also her ability to help build consensus,” says Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association.
Mawakana was the unanimous pick to chair the association for just those reasons, he says.
Others have pointed to her organizational skills — in recent weeks, she was juggling a trip to Brazil for an international conference on Internet governance, fallout from a landmark European Union court ruling recognizing a “right to be forgotten” online, and a sick 5-year-old.
For her part, Mawakana, says she views her role as “a translator between regulation, public policy, and then business needs and demands.”
As a young lawyer in the telecomms practice at the big D.C. firm of Steptoe and Johnson, Mawakana’s role was to “take these concepts that seemed in some ways sci-fi, when you talk about orbital arcs and all that, and translate that into a business conversation,” she says.
Now she’s taking the business conversation and trying to put it into terms government officials from Montreal to Mumbai can understand as they make decisions that increasingly step on consumer and industry interests.
She clearly relishes the geekery of the industry she’s in, even if, like Mayer, she doesn’t look the part of the tech nerd.
Sleek and stylish in a colorful geometric print dress, friendly but also businesslike (this is D.C., after all), it’s not immediately apparent that Mawakana grew up in the South. The oldest child of an Air Force officer and a mother who worked in fashion and retail, she was born in Collins, Mississipi, and raised in Woodbridge, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia. She has no Southern accent, but in her soft-spoken warmth and manner, you can spot a hint of that Southern-style charm.
People skills are important in Washington, where it’s all about selling your case to policymakers.
Trade, taxes, broadband policy, Federal Communications Commission regulations, immigration, education, patent law — they all affect a company like Yahoo.
Yahoo has in some ways been out front on the spying issue — it was the only company to fight back, secretly at the time, against classified orders for its user data.
Yet privacy advocates want to see much more.
“We’re really waiting for someone to be a leader on the mass surveillance,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “These companies still have a ways they can go to help their customers.”
Mawakana’s got her translator work cut out for her.
Why you should care
Governments have huge sway over the way information circulates online. As users, we rely on companies like Yahoo and their leaders in Washington to help protect not just our personal data but our Internet access, period.