Big Tech Challenged in Big Way

The big drama has always haunted big tech, but against a backdrop of foaming national and global forces battling for public attention, Silicon Valley saw a rush of investigation in 2020 that only intensified as the months passed.
There is no question that with the coronavirus pandemic and various lockdowns, more people are living more of their lives online. And with that, the way big tech companies manage their platforms is at the heart of modern life.
After years of stance, the pervasive suspicions of lawmakers and regulators about the technology sector now seem to be boiling over. The usual refrains revolved around misinformation, antitrust law, data protection and, to a lesser but louder degree, censorship and bias against conservatives - although the latter issue looked more like an extravagant sideshow.
Republican lawmakers at times seemed to be fighting in screaming games over who can best impale Twitter's chief executive officer Jack Dorsey. The words of Senator Ted Cruz, R-Tex., From an October hearing - "Mr. Dorsey, who the hell voted you and made you responsible for what the media can report and what the American people can hear ... "- can resonate for years.
Tech animus, your cup is overflowing. While it's not clear how much the public followed what happened on the convention floor or in video calls, the shift has been more than palpable for those who were observant. It seemed inevitable - especially after what had come before.
The federal government has been grappling with the tech industry for years and has never been entirely sure what to do with a fast-paced sector that it barely understood. Probes, testimony, and even the occasional heavy fine did little to change Big Tech's approach.
In the pre-Donald Trump era, there were high hopes that the government would finally begin to understand the opportunities - and the implications - of what companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were doing. The Obama years were perhaps the most tech-savvy of any presidential administration. The then president named Megan Smith the country's first chief technology officer in 2009 and frequented high-profile business leaders during his tenure.
In contrast, President Trump appears to be at war with technology platforms. Congress seems to be, too, especially given Facebook's role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the latter used the data of millions of Facebook users without their permission for political ads in the 2016 presidential election.
When it comes to technology, the problem soaked up much of the oxygen at Capital Hill until the social media giant was fined $ 5 billion last year.
From there, the action condensed on numerous fronts. Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders made calls to disband big tech a feature of their campaigns. Other Democratic senators and House officials criticized social media platforms for spreading misinformation, including conspiracy theories like Q Anon.
When Facebook and Twitter occasionally throttled attempts to spread false information online - prioritizing certain posts and eventually slapping warning signs and adding contextual links to others that led to the 2020 presidential election, and including the 2020 presidential election - they cast a wide web, which also entangled some of Trump's contributions. Conservatives roared about “censorship” and bias and drove their ranks to the alternative social platform Parler, an app that promotes free speech.
In November, Parler swelled with the influx. At one point it became the most downloaded app for iPhones and Android devices. In one week, the rank rose to 10 million and doubled the user base.
In particular, some of the glitz may wane now as users - in Facebook groups about Parler, no less - complain that the app's dominant right-wing alignment makes it a little too conflict-free. One member stated, "What's the point of only seeing posts from conservative newsgroups, but not from my friends or family?"
Although the year brought many absurdities, it was also the foundation for serious business curbing in social media companies and other major technology platforms.
Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos made his first appearance before Congress this year, albeit via videoconference, indicating that his marketing practices will be getting a much closer look. Europe doesn't wait abroad: the European Commission, headed by Margrethe Vestager, its Vice-President for Digital Affairs, raised antitrust fees against the e-commerce titan in November.
"We have to ensure that dual role platforms with market power like Amazon do not distort competition," Vestager said in a statement at the time. "Data on third-party activities should not be used for the benefit of Amazon if it competes with those sellers."
The EU has also targeted Google over the years, resulting in fines of nearly $ 10 billion for antitrust violations. However, the company's recent troubles can be traced back to its homeland as lawsuits continue to mount in the US.
Google has been hit by no fewer than three antitrust lawsuits in just a few weeks, the last one arriving last Thursday from a non-partisan group of 38 states and territories.
The company is already defending itself against allegations of unfair practices to empower Google advertising and is now being charged with having a search monopoly that is the cornerstone of its business.
The lawsuit alleges that the company is optimizing search results ranking to harm competitors and promote its own products. Activities go beyond pure web searches and mobile devices to include connected vehicles, smart speakers, and other devices integrated with Google Assistant voice functionality.
Although federal regulators are similarly scrutinizing Apple regarding app store policies that may favor the iPhone company's software and services or treat app makers with an unequal hand, pressure from developers has increased recently.
Epic Games filed a lawsuit against Apple, accusing Apple of antitrust violations for pulling its Fortnite game from the App Store because it included an alternative payment feature that reduced in-app sales by 30 percent Apple bypasses.
For similar reasons, Facebook also got on the scene and ran a campaign against an iPhone update that would require users to opt for user tracking of ads. The social media giant considers Apple hypocritical, noting that the latter also tracks users but is not subject to its own policy. This is the kind of attention investigators could get, which means 2021 could be significant for Apple.
As for Facebook itself, the owner of Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger in Washington, DC, has been interviewed so many times that it would not be surprising if CEO Mark Zuckerberg barely raised an eyebrow at the subpoenas. Facebook is also not unfamiliar with investigations or even heavy fines.
What it is perhaps less familiar with is a whirlpool of legal action and controls hitting the company on numerous fronts, exposing new potential threats.
The Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general from 47 states announced in early December that they are suing Facebook over allegations that the company is allegedly abusing its dominance. The suit is intended to cancel Instagram and WhatsApp, which were acquired in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
The case is, for the most part, viewed as one of the most serious to resolve with the social media company. According to a statement by Ian Conner, director of the FTC competition bureau, “Facebook’s actions to anchor and maintain its monopoly deny consumers the benefits of competition. Our goal is to roll back Facebook's anti-competitive behavior and restore competition so that innovation and free competition can flourish. "
The FTC is also demanding that Facebook and other social media platforms - like Google's YouTube and, for some reason, Amazon - explain how they use people's data. The obvious answer is that these companies can target ads. But the details could reveal the policies and tactics of Facebook and the others.
In a move that could affect the business of all these companies, Europe has proposed two new pieces of legislation aimed at targeting big tech players more carefully on the content of their platforms, the potential anti-competitive behavior and e-commerce products.
That just scratches the surface. In early December, President Trump signed an executive order defining how federal agencies will use artificial intelligence and set a tone that could impact broader AI development.
There is also the fate of net neutrality to be weighed, which the outgoing chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, seeks to reverse. Net neutrality describes a scenario in which Internet traffic is treated equally, rather than the so-called “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” that are used by some online businesses and not by others.
Most importantly, a new presidential administration is about to begin which could either ease or exacerbate tech worries.
In either case, there is no doubt that some important steps have been taken in 2020 to take control of the big tech players. And what comes next could set the course for the years to come.
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