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2019 was the year the techlash got real for Silicon Valley.
The industry still hasn't recovered from the reckoning, despite pressure to do more to improve privacy and address disinformation as the 2020 election approaches. Lawmakers, presidential candidates and regulators targeted Silicon Valley in unprecedented ways, handing out record-setting fines and opening broad investigations into the industry's power.
The Washington Post's expanded technology team led coverage of this period of the industry's adolescence, as reporters broke major stories and found creative ways to illustrate society's ever-evolving relationship with the Internet. My colleagues submitted their favorite stories from the past year, along with their thoughts about what these articles said about the state of tech as we head into the next decade.
1. Trust in tech giants eroded, as consumers grew more suspicious about how companies were using their data.
From Geoffrey A. Fowler, technology columnist: “The idea of your phone secretly surveilling you while you sleep captures this fraught moment in our relationship with technology. We’re suspicious our data has a secret life — and this experiment confirmed it. Consumer trust is evaporating quickly — and tech companies have to earn it back by being more transparent about what they’re doing with our data.”
2. Algorithms and data-mining went mainstream — as the surveillance tech conjured in Silicon Valley influenced everything from summer camps to college admissions.
From Drew Harwell, artificial intelligence reporter: “Algorithms that analyze our faces, behavior and bodies are now mainstream. A flood of cheap cameras, sensors and microphones — and a growing public acceptance in trading privacy for comfort and ease — has reshaped the American workplace and family quicker than anyone expected.”
From Douglas MacMillan, corporate accountability reporter: “Several university officials we spoke to for this story defended their data-mining practices like this: Google and Facebook are already tracking teenagers across the Web, so why shouldn't we? It's a reminder that many industries are following in the footsteps of tech — for better or worse.”
3. Tech companies struggled to police their services at scale, raising new questions about the responsibilities of platforms.
From Greg Bensinger, algorithms and artificial intelligence reporter: “The story was a demonstration of how so much of the tech industry shields itself from responsibility and a presage to Uber’s disclosure three months later of the extent of sexual assaults during rides. The protections afforded the gig economy and other platform companies like Amazon and eBay by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act leaves customers holding the bag when sometimes terrible things happen. In this case, nearly two dozen employees detailed how Uber was enabling bad actors to continue driving for them so that it could avoid legal or press scrutiny.”
From Christina Passariello, technology editor: "One of the big themes of the year was the responsibility of tech companies to the problems that have emerged on their sites. Facebook and YouTube have been grappling with this for years and have hired tens of thousands of people to review borderline content. But our investigation showed they keep those reviewers at arms’ length, employing them mostly as contractors and struggling to deal with the side effects of reviewing horrible content for hours a day."
From Jay Greene, Seattle technology reporter: “Amazon’s retail site is enormous, with more than 500 million listings, by some estimates. That size makes its difficult to police. Amazon has a policy that prohibits the sale of CBD, and yet it’s pretty easy to find. We bought 13 products and had them tested, and 11 included the banned compound. That availability offers a window into the challenges the e-commerce giant has patrolling its own site.”
4. Washington took unprecedented action to hold the tech giants to account — but many critics didn't think federal enforcers went far enough.
From Tony Romm, senior tech policy reporter: "It is the largest fine ever levied against a tech giant for a privacy mishap, yet the Federal Trade Commission's $5 billion punishment against Facebook this summer still served to illustrate its continued struggle to rein in Silicon Valley. The FTC initially considered tougher penalties -- some at the agency certainly sought that -- but it ultimately opted to settle its more than year-long investigation rather than litigate. Only time will tell if the commission's resolution -- and the changes it forces on Facebook -- will meaningfully remake the tech giant after a litany of mistakes or vindicate those who feel Washington once again failed to do its job.
From Christina: "Parents know this: kids love YouTube, for the endless cartoons and other content that appeals to little ones. And yet YouTube says that kids under 13 shouldn’t be on its site. This kind of contradiction - between policy and practice - is rampant in technology, which tries to evade responsibility for what appears on a platform. YouTube later faced an FTC fine for allegedly violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, the law that prohibits collecting data on children under 13."
5. The industry's power was challenged in new ways, as Washington began antitrust investigations of major tech companies.
From Reed Albergotti, consumer electronics reporter: “Without a thriving community of software developers, Apple’s iPhone never would have taken off. It would be just another cell phone with a touch screen. But Apple has also taken many of the best ideas for itself, as this article shows by focusing on the people who’ve been harmed by this practice, known as ‘Sherlocking.' This article helped steer the conversation about Apple’s power, and congress cited it its antitrust investigation into the company."
6. Disinformation tested companies' investments in fighting falsehoods.
From Abby Ohlheiser, digital culture reporter: “I spent months embedded in Facebook groups devoted to circulating unproven, sometimes dangerous, natural ‘cures’ for cancer for this story. Even as Facebook was starting to crack down on viral misinformation about vaccines, 'cures' like baking soda, colloidal silver, and frankincense were still gaining huge audiences there (our story helped to get Facebook to more aggressively limit the reach of false medical cures, although I still regularly see them in the natural medicine groups I joined for this story). This is partially a technology story. But as a culture writer who covers the Internet, I wanted to make sure I captured the personal here, too. These bogus cures were attracting audiences of people who were desperate to save the lives of a loved one, or themselves, and were finding algorithmic tunnels of false information promising miracles.”
From Isaac Stanley-Becker, national political reporter: “It turns out good old Wikipedia — the bane of every high school history teacher’s existence — has a lot to teach social media platforms about combating misinformation. It certainly helps not to have a profit motive.”
From Tonya Riley, Technology 202 and Cybersecurity 202 researcher: “This year we saw Facebook dedicate new resources to fact-checking on Instagram. But as this story shows, it's not clear how well the tools translate to the platform, which is a much more visual medium than Facebook. Instagram served as a key tool for Russian disinformation efforts in 2016 and will likely play a similar role in 2020. It’s also played a key role in subcultures that spread domestic disinformation, something tech companies have struggled to address in 2019.”
7. Tech workers stood up to companies as industry activism extended beyond white-collar tech employees.
From Nitasha Tiku, tech culture reporter: “Stories about labor activism in the tech industry often focus on white collar engineers or the launch of new campaign against a tech company. I wanted to give readers more of a narrative, to see behind-the-scenes at all the effort and emotion it takes to organize an atomized labor force, from a gig worker’s perspective. From my very first conversation with Vanessa Bain, I knew she had an incredible story that illustrated the next phase of labor organizing in the gig economy, and new tactics designed to improve working conditions when your boss is an algorithm.”
8. Silicon Valley's party turned into a hangover as Wall Street challenged so-called 'unicorn' valuations.
From Faiz Siddiqui, future of transportation reporter: "Few were surprised that Uber celebrated its IPO the way it did — with partying that sometimes got out of hand. But even as it was happening, some inside the company’s headquarters had reservations, wondering what exactly Uber had to celebrate and whether it was good form to ring in the corporate milestone with champagne, mimosas and late-night bar crawls . After all, drivers had been protesting outside Uber’s headquarters that week over their diminishing wages and treatment by the company. Then, on a day when workers woke up at 6 a.m. to begin celebrating, Uber’s IPO floundered out of the gate. It’s emblematic of what has been a depressed IPO season for Silicon Valley’s 'unicorn' startups: diminished financial promise and the hard realities of going public, being accountable to investors and becoming a sustainable business. IPO day might have marked the last battle cry — or whimper — of the Uber of old."
9. Our relationship with our devices continued to evolve, changing everyday interactions.
From Heather Kelly, technology reporter: “People are still reading books in 2019, but many are doing it in the most 2019 was possible: they’re sharing and collecting library logins to find short waits for ebooks that they read on their phones and e-readers. Libraries, publishers, authors and readers are figuring out this complicated new ecosystem in real time, and I’m sure it will continue to change in the coming years.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Amazon prohibits Cannabidiol (CBD) sales, but it’s still easy to find legitimate versions of the product on the online marketplace, my colleague Jay Greene reports. Eleven of the 13 items purchased by The Post off Amazon that seemed to have CBD based off product reviews contained the substance, a lab confirmed.
The Post’s investigation illustrates Amazon's struggle to police its marketplace, which is dominated by third-party sellers offering millions of unvetted items. Sellers have in large part been able to circumvent Amazon's ban by leaving CBD out of their product descriptions — a practice they say Amazon turns a blind eye to.
(Amazon representative Patrick Graham denied this claim. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Others are more explicit: A recent search for “CBD oil” on Amazon turned up more than 6,000 results. Customer reviews often also mention CBD, even if the product description doesn't. One product purchased by The Post even had a small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which unlike CBD is illegal in most states.
Amazon says it deploys advanced algorithms designed to sniff out descriptions that could hint at the banned ingredient. Amazon removed some, but not all, of the product listings after being asked about them by The Post. The company told Jay it was investigating each of the sellers.
Laws regulating the sale of CBD are murky, and Amazon declined to say why it banned the increasingly popular substance. Amazon faces growing scrutiny from lawmakers over its struggle to police its platform.
NIBBLES: A group of Democratic lawmakers is pressing the Department of Housing and Urban Development about how it uses and funds facial recognition technology in public housing.
“[HUD] is responsible for creating and ensuring discrimination-free practices in all communities,” the legislators, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), wrote in a letter to Secretary Ben Carson yesterday. “However, as numerous civil rights experts have pointed out, when public housing and federally assisted property owners install facial recognition security camera systems, they could be used to enable invasive, unnecessary and harmful government surveillance of their residents. Those who cannot afford more do not deserve less in basic privacy and protections.”
Lawmakers are requesting HUD respond by Jan. 24.
There is no federal law regulating the use of facial recognition technology by federal agencies. Civil rights groups calling for a ban on the technology criticized the House Oversight Committee for postponing a hearing on the technology slated for this week until next year.
Clarke, alongside Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), introduced legislation that would ban the use of facial recognition in public housing. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who also signed the letter, introduced a companion bill in the Senate last month. Both bills have been referred to committee.
BYTES: Instagram released new policies yesterday to further rein in how influencers use the platform to hawk products. The social media giant will require influencers posting branded content to promote restricted items including alcohol and diet products to implement special restrictions based on age beginning next year, the company announced yesterday.
The company will also begin to more strictly enforce an advertising ban on branded content promoting vapes, tobacco and weapons. The changes, which come just weeks after Instagram started requiring users to verify their age, mark the first time Instagram has implemented restrictions for branded content for certain items. The restrictions bring the content more in line with Facebook’s policies for advertisers.
The company will also roll out a version of Facebook's “Brand Collabs Manager” for select Instagram users to help them share analytics with brands and find brands for potential new partnerships.
— News from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
--Tomorrow Instacart workers will contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding allegations of unsafe work conditions as part of a week-long protest effort to raise awareness about the company's treatment of gig workers.
— More news about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- CES will take place Jan. 7-10 in Las Vegas