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2018 marked a year of reckoning for the technology industry.

Fears about the growing influence of technology and its negative effects on society and democratic institutions replaced the enthusiasm that once fueled the rise of Silicon Valley titans. After keeping   lawmakers and regulators at arms' length for years, tech executives came under searing pressure from Washington on issues ranging from privacy to election tampering.

The Washington Post’s growing  team of technology reporters covered this remarkable evolution in deep and revealing ways. I’ve included some of my colleagues' most important work from the past year in today’s newsletter, along with their thoughts about what their reporting means about the increasingly fraught relationship between Silicon Valley in Washington in 2018. 

Here are the biggest takeaways from The Post's work:


1. Bad actors exploited technology to amplify the ugliest aspects of humanity. Technology companies struggled to respond, as the massive scale of the platforms worked against them.

Business
Less than an hour after the shooting, online communities devised a plan to bend the public narrative.
Craig Timberg and Drew Harwell

From Craig Timberg: “The Parkland story showed that many of the disturbing things that happen in plain view on the Internet are not the inevitable consequence of lots of people merely being online, sharing their views. The worst stuff typically is the product of well-coordinated, malicious efforts to reshape how we understand the world — inevitably for the worse.”

Business
A Post examination found the majority of reviews on some popular products appeared to violate the e-commerce giant’s policies.
Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg

From Elizabeth Dwoskin: “The story reflects our efforts across the year to show how the online systems we take for granted are heavily gamed — by Russian operatives, profiteers, or even the companies themselves — and how tech platforms have become too big to control their dark side.”

Business
The social media giant is tracking 50 elections this year. In countries like Mexico, the meddling often comes from within.
Elizabeth Dwoskin
Technology
The founder of the social media platform, which has been linked to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect, created the site after he felt alienated by liberal Silicon Valley.
Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Emma Brown

2. Trust in technology giants eroded — and ratcheted up pressure on Silicon Valley companies to break the status quo and prioritize privacy.

Business
Jan Koum disagreed with Facebook over the popular messaging service’s strategy and Facebook’s attempts to use its personal data and weaken its encryption.
Elizabeth Dwoskin

From Christina Passariello: "The collective conscience of the tech industry awakened this year. We saw this at Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other companies - but nowhere more so than Facebook, from the masses of employees all the way up to the revered founders of companies Facebook bought."

The Switch
Bailey Richardson, one of Instagram's original 13 employees, says the company has lost its identity.
Elizabeth Dwoskin

From Christina: "The founders of Facebook’s two most high-profile acquisitions - Instagram and WhatsApp - played a significant role as the brain trust and upholders of the ideals that made these two networks so popular. The founders of both companies left this year, raising questions about how Facebook’s tighter grip will change them."

The Switch
Say no to defaults. A clickable guide to fixing the complicated privacy settings from Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.
Geoffrey A. Fowler

From Geoffrey A. Fowler: “I did it as a labor of love — digging through all those settings took forever. But it unexpectedly was a viral hit. And it proved privacy is not a niche concern for Americans any more. We are angry and confused and don’t trust that tech giants have our interests at heart.”

From the moment the Facebook founder entered the public eye in 2003 for creating a Harvard student hot-or-not rating site, he’s been apologizing. So we collected this abbreviated history of his public mea culpas.
Geoffrey A. Fowler and Chiqui Esteban
The Switch
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said he is rethinking core parts of the social media platform so that it doesn’t enable the spread of hate speech, harassment and false news, including conspiracy theories shared by prominent users like Alex Jones and Infowars.
Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin

3. Federal lawmakers and regulators struggled to rein in increasingly powerful players. As they faltered, several states tried to pick up some of the slack. City regulators faced new challenges with scooter companies that used tactics similar to Uber and Lyft to quickly expand. 

The Switch
Facing new tough tech debates — including artificial intelligence and Russian meddling — lawmakers are exploring whether to bring back the Capitol's little-known, decades-old science and tech think tank.
Tony Romm

From Tony Romm: “The story of 2018 wasn't just that tech newly found itself in the political crosshairs: It was the utter lack of preparation, and absence of digitally savvy, that was on display from some of the very lawmakers who are supposed to keep watch over Silicon Valley.”

Business
The bill sets up a clash with federal regulators over the future of the Internet.
Brian Fung

From Brian Fung: “The new legislation — signed by Gov. Jerry Brown — quickly became a symbol of California’s defiance against Washington as the Trump administration sued to block the law.”

Business
They may look like toys, but the shared scooters can inflict the same harm as any other motorized vehicle, critics say.
Peter Holley

From Peter Holley " I don't think there's a better example of how technology — in its pursuit of rapid growth and market share — tends to outpace regulation. But rarely, I think, does that outpacing have such immediate human consequences. It was days and weeks, not months and years, after e-scooters arrived that the technology began to fall apart and malfunction, unleashing a vast number of injuries that some people may never entirely recover from. "

The Switch
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey plan to tell lawmakers Wednesday that they are better prepared to combat foreign interference on their platforms than during the 2016 election.
Tony Romm and Craig Timberg

4. We began to grapple with the wide-ranging pain points technology can introduce in our daily lives — from constant spam to online pressure on mental health.

The Switch
An Arkansas-based firm predicts an explosion of spam calls, marking a leap from 3.7 percentage of total calls in 2017 to a projected 44.6 percentage by early 2019.
Hamza Shaban

From Hamza Shaban:  “The scam calls we get every day are like some kind of non-fatal technological disease — the calls aren't debilitating or all that painful, at least if you don't fall prey to them, but they're ubiquitous and never-ending, everyone seems to get them, and they're only getting worse.”

The online star is learning how to cope in a world where fame and pressure come hand in hand.
Abby Ohlheiser

From Abby Ohlheiser: "The resulting piece became a close examination of how sudden online fame can impact your mental health, a topic that has become one of the most important topics in online culture this year."

The Switch
With the help of a 9-year-old, we tested Apple’s iOS 12 on an iPad versus Amazon’s Fire Kids Edition. Parents, beware: Apple’s defaults let kids access NC-17 movies and explicit books.
Geoffrey Fowler

5. Advances presented new privacy and bias concerns as artificial intelligence, facial recognition and other emerging technologies became more intertwined in society.

We tested Amazon's Alexa and a Google Home to see how people with accents are getting left behind in the smart-speaker revolution.
Drew Harwell

From Drew Harwell: “Even the most advanced and increasingly widespread pieces of technology can be built with subtle biases that make people feel left behind.”

 

Parents and privacy experts worry that schools are rushing to adopt untested and invasive artificial-intelligence systems with no evidence of success.
Drew Harwell

From Christina: "The reverence of technology has been called into question again this year. New software — especially artificial intelligence and facial recognition — has seeped into the workplace, our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods, without the public understanding the consequences."

The Switch
A start-up that requires prospective babysitters to hand over their social media accounts says it uses “advanced artificial intelligence” to assess a sitter's risk of drug abuse, bullying and more.
Drew Harwell

Dear Readers: The Technology 202 is taking a break for the holidays starting on Monday, Dec. 24. We will see you back in your inboxes ready to go for 2019 on Jan. 7. Thanks for reading this past year and we hope you, your family and friends have a relaxing and happy holiday season and new year.

While we’re away, check out The Post’s new premier daily podcast, Post Reports. Unparalleled reporting. Expert insight. Clear analysis. Every weekday. Get new episodes online, to your email or in a podcast app: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Stitcher

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Uber is resuming tests of its self-driving cars on public roads following a fatal crash in March in Tempe, Ariz., but this time the vehicles will be driving slower and under stricter conditions, according to the New York Times's Kate Conger. The autonomous vehicles will be driving on a loop in Pittsburgh and won't go above 25 mph, as opposed to as much as 55 mph previously. “Each car will have two drivers inside, ready to take over in case something goes wrong, Uber said,” according to Conger. “The operators will work in four-hour shifts, down from eight to 10 hours previously. No passengers will ride in the cars.”

The cars will be driving on a one-mile route between two Uber offices in the city and only during daytime on weekdays, the Wall Street Journal's Greg Bensinger reported. The company said it will also test its autonomous cars in San Francisco and Toronto but in those cases humans will be operating the vehicles.

NIBBLES: Consumers heading to Apple stores in Germany to buy iPhones 7 or 8 may return home empty-handed after the company said it will remove those devices from its 15 retail locations in the country as it appeals a court decision, the Wall Street Journal's Sara Germano and Tripp Mickle reported. Apple's announcement came after a district court in Munich found that the company infringed on a Qualcomm patent and issued an injunction that would ban sales of iPhones 7 and 8 — including the Plus versions — and sales of the iPhone X. Apple said it would still be possible to purchase iPhones 7 and 8 in Germany via wireless carriers and other retailers, according to the Journal.

“For each of the two Apple entities it won orders against, Qualcomm needs to post a bond of about 668.4 million euros, or $765.9 million, before it can begin proceedings to enforce the order, a move Qualcomm said it would carry out ‘within a few days,’” according to Reuters's Jörn Poltz and Stephen Nellis. The German ruling follows a court decision in China last month that found that Apple had infringed on two other Qualcomm patents.

BYTES: Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) called for a  probe into an alleged online disinformation plot carried out against his opponent Republican Roy Moore during last year’s Alabama special election, my colleagues Craig, Tony, Aaron C. Davis and Elizabeth reported. He compared the alleged campaign to Russian election interference in the 2016 election.  

"What is obvious now is that we have focused so much on Russia that we haven’t focused on the fact that people in this country could take the same playbook and do the same damn thing,” Jones said in a statement. “I’d like to see the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department look at this to see if there were any laws being violated and, if there were, prosecute those responsible

Jones called for the probe a day after my colleagues reported that Jonathon Morgan, the chief executive of a company responsible for one of the Senate Intelligence Committee reports on disinformation this week, had engaged in questionable tactics to disseminate disinformation last year during the race. Morgan told my colleagues he took these actions independently as a researcher. "This was like an, ‘Is it possible,’ small-scale, almost like a thought experiment," Morgan told them. 

404 ERROR
Innovations
Bird, the electric scooter giant, says safety is one of the company's top priorities. But a new study from the University of Southern California points out that the company's Instagram feed includes very few images of riders wearing protective gear.
Peter Holley
Blind left one of its database servers exposed without a password, making it possible for anyone who knew where to look to access each user’s account information and identify would-be whistleblowers.
TechCrunch
Technology
A couple was alarmed to hear a man's voice claiming that he was about to kidnap their 4-month-old son.
Amy B Wang
PRIVATE CLOUD

— Facebook said it is cracking down on fake news outlets in Bangladesh as the country readies for national elections. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said in a news release that the company shut down nine pages and six accounts that were controlled by people with ties to Bangladesh's government and engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The pages were designed to resemble independent outlets but posted content that favored the government and decried the opposition.

“This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook under our misrepresentation policy because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,” Gleicher said. About 11,900 users followed at least one of the Facebook pages that the social network took down, Gleicher said. As the Associated Press's Julhas Alam noted, Facebook's announcement “comes at a key time for Bangladesh, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attempting to return to office for a third consecutive time in Dec. 30 elections.”

—Slack closed the accounts of users who have ties to Iran but live in other countries including the United States, Canada and Finlandthe Verge's Russell Brandom reported. The company said it took such actions in order to comply with U.S. sanctions on Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and “the Crimea region of Ukraine.”  Critics said Slack's decision was too broad and unwarranted, but as Brandom reported, “the mechanics of sanctions enforcement make it simpler for companies to ban first and ask questions later. The cost of violating US sanctions can be enormous, while the cost of deactivating a defensible account is relatively small.” However, the company said it will review complaints from users who say their accounts were wrongly blocked.

A Slack representative said the company deactivates accounts of users who have an IP address from a country that is subjected to U.S. sanctionsMotherboard's Joseph Cox reported.

— More technology news from the private sector:

The business model of many of the country’s tech start-ups — spend furiously to acquire new users, worry about profits later — wobbles as one company’s stock piles up on the streets.
The New York Times
Apple’s transparency report just got a lot more — well, transparent. For years, the technology giant released a twice-a-year report on the number of government demands it received.
TechCrunch
When Waymo tests its self-driving car prototypes on public roads, teams of workers sit inside control rooms remotely monitoring their every move.
The Information
Two banks that helped power Huawei’s rise, HSBC and Standard Chartered, won’t provide it with any new banking services or funding after deciding that it is too high a risk.
The Wall Street Journal
PUBLIC CLOUD

- President Donald J. Trump tweeted that he knows “tech better than anyone” as he defended his plans for a border wall in a showdown that will likely prompt a partial government shutdown tonight at midnight:

That statement doesn't add up with what we know about Trump's tech-savvy. Though the president is clearly a big Twitter user, Politico has reported he's more or less a Luddite, never sending emails or texts.  More recently, he came under fire after a New York Times report exposed he was not abiding by proper security precautions when using his cell phones

Some companies are trying to apply cutting-edge technology to border security. The New York Times reported earlier this year on efforts to use the sensors behind self-driving cars to detect illegal intruders from Mexico. 

— The United States is escalating its pushback against Chinese hacking. The Justice Department unveiled indictments of two Chinese individuals for taking part in an alleged hacking campaign to seize vast amounts of corporate data in 12 countries, The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima and David J. Lynch reported. “The Chinese targeted companies in the finance, telecommunications, consumer electronics and medical industries, along with U.S. government laboratories operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the military, the indictment alleges,” my colleagues wrote.

The hacking group also stole personal information from more than 100,000 U.S. Navy personnel, according to prosecutors. “China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower, and they're using illegal methods to get there,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said.

— Reps. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.) introduced a bill that would define a “digital token” and would exclude cryptocurrencies from the definition of a security, according to CNBC's Kate Rooney. The legislation, titled “Token Taxonomy Act,” would clarify “that securities laws would not apply to cryptocurrencies once they become a fully functioning network,” CNBC reported.

“In the early days of the internet, Congress passed legislation that provided certainty and resisted the temptation to over-regulate the market,” Davidson said in a statement. “Our intent is to achieve a similar win for America’s economy and for American leadership in this innovative space.”

— More technology news from the public sector:

Three New York City Council members are introducing legislation to prevent the city from signing nondisclosure agreements during negotiations with corporations.
BuzzFeed News
#TRENDING
A new study shows how much cash it would take to get people off Facebook for as long as one year.
Motherboard
Some Amazon sellers comp shoppers who give five-star ratings, others deploy armies of fake buyers—and that means you need to review the reviews
The Wall Street Journal
@MENTIONS

— John Maddox, a former associate administrator of vehicle safety research at the Transportation Department, is joining Lyft, according to TechCrunch.

— John Giannandrea has been named to Apple's executive team as senior vice president of machine learning and artificial intelligence strategy, Apple announced in a news release.

BURN RATE
SoftBank Group has led a $385 million investment in auto-finance startup Fair, the latest bet by the Japanese firm to back startups that are trying to fundamentally change personal transportation.
The Wall Street Journal
CHECK-INS

Coming soon

  • Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao delivers a speech at the CES technology show in Las Vegas on Jan. 9, 2019.
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