Tech dominated 2020 — from social media censorship to the SolarWinds hack of the federal government to reshaping everyday life for millions of Americans forced to school, work and socialize at home during the coronavirus.
These are the top five tech stories that shaped the year:
Social media censorship
America’s largest social media companies collectively ramped up their crackdown on offensive content and trained their sights on President Trump in a manner unimaginable just a few years ago.
The Trump era in Washington began with Facebook hosting an inauguration party with the conservative outlet The Daily Caller atop the swanky Hay-Adams Hotel in January 2017.
Nearly four years later, Facebook lined up with Twitter before the 2020 elections to restrict the distribution of news stories that were damaging to President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s presidential campaign.
Twitter temporarily suspended The New York Post’s account for sharing news of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter’s shady business dealings while also repeatedly flagging, tagging and restricting Mr. Trump’s tweets in the final days of the presidential campaign.
While Twitter’s approach was more aggressive than its counterparts, nearly every other social media platform took similar action restricting the president’s comments. Snapchat withheld Mr. Trump’s content from the Discover feature on its platform, Amazon-owned Twitch booted Mr. Trump temporarily from its platform, and Reddit booted the pro-Trump forum r/The_Donald alongside approximately 2,000 other subreddit communities for violating new hate speech rules.
Republican lawmakers responded by hauling Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate multiple times in October and November to grill them about the censorship regimes.
Facebook and Twitter’s reactions to stories about Hunter Biden’s business dealings from the New York Post may not have changed many voters’ minds, but it proved to be the final straw for many on the political right who subsequently began looking for liberal allies to regulate the social media companies.
Unprecedented levels of hacking
News of the SolarWinds hack of federal agencies emerged publicly in 2020’s finals days, but its roots may have begun several years earlier and handed unprecedented access of America’s critical infrastructure networks to hostile actors.
SolarWinds is a Texas-based software company that counts many government agencies and large corporations worldwide as leading customers. The extent of the hack through SolarWinds is not fully known, but among the federal agencies that are believed to have been affected are the Treasury Department, Commerce Department, State Department, Energy Department, Department of Homeland Security, National Institutes of Health, parts of the Pentagon and several other agencies.
Russia is the widely suspected culprit, but attribution for the hack has remained uncertain and President Trump has speculated that China could have played a role.
Regardless of who sponsored the hackers, experts identified cyber breaches unlike anything seen before. Federation of American Scientists chairman Gilman Louie has labeled the breach a “cyber 9/11” and recommended a new government agency to coordinate cyberintelligence sharing across the federal government and with the private sector.
Government officials’ focus on, and investment in, cybersecurity issues and defenses are likely to ramp up in 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic moved many millions of workers, students and consumers online, with the videoconferencing company Zoom as the leading beneficiary.
In 2020, Zoom stock surged 425% according to a Motley Fool analysis, with other competitors rushing to keep up with the working-from-home boom.
Zoom’s ties to China, however, triggered the government to have national security concerns. Some Zoom data was erroneously routed through China and the company’s use of engineers in China raised the hackles of America’s national security community.
The scrutiny culminated in the Justice Department charging a China-based telecom executive with crimes stemming from his alleged work to help the Chinese communist regime silence the political and religious speech of Zoom’s users. Prosecutors did not identify Zoom in its charging announcement, but Zoom responded in a statement noting that it was cooperating with Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Zoom also settled with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it misled users about the level of its encryption it provided to users since at least 2016.
Some China hawks were not satisfied with the FTC’s approach. Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican, is pressing the FTC for further investigation of Zoom.
The U.S. feud with China over Americans’ data privacy escalated last year, as the Trump administration took more aggressive action against the Chinese telecom Huawei and sought to ban the popular video-sharing app TikTok.
The Trump administration took action to prevent Huawei — Mr. Trump called it “SpyWei” — from gaining access to certain technologies, and the government sought to diminish the Chinese telecom’s dominance over 5G technology.
Mr. Trump already had issued an executive order in 2019 that essentially blocked Huawei from U.S. communications networks.
China-owned TikTok, meanwhile, underwent multiple national security reviews by the federal government in 2020 while looking to avoid Mr. Trump’s ire. Unable to find a business model that would appease Mr. Trump and the Chinese communists, the company has turned to the federal courts for its rescue.
The moves against companies such as Huawei, TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance, and Zoom are a harbinger of things to come for America’s battle to protect its intellectual property from Chinese economic espionage.
American companies’ handling of private data is not immune from government scrutiny, either. In December, the Federal Trade Commission ordered nine social media and video-streaming companies to hand over data on the information they gather from their users. Those companies include Amazon; ByteDance; Discord; WhatsApp and its owner Facebook; Reddit; Snapchat; Twitter; and YouTube, which is owned by Google.
Antitrust fervor against Big Tech
Government officials from the federal level on down took big swings at Big Tech in 2020, honing in on Google and Facebook.
The Justice Department and 11 states brought a major case in October against Google, saying that its search results favor its own products over competitors. Google has called the lawsuit deeply flawed.
Not to be outdone, the FTC and 48 states and territories brought lawsuits in December against Facebook for allegedly engaging in unlawful behavior to eliminate its social networking competitors.
The increasing appetite for regulation captured the attention of Congress, which is considering several new options that could end with government regulators smashing Big Tech. House Democrats released a 450-page report in October calling for an overhaul of antitrust law, new antitrust enforcement aiming at Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, and presumptively blocking mergers and acquisitions by big tech companies. Some Republicans expressed support for the report’s findings but proffered that different solutions would better rectify the perceived problems.
The government-imposed existential threat to large technology companies’ futures is unlikely to disappear in 2021.