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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The most consequential stories for tech in 2020 pit the industry's corporate colossi against the U.S. government, foreign nations, and the human needs of their own customers.

Why it matters: Today's tech giants own and operate the informational hubs that increasingly shape our public and private lives. That's putting their products and policies under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Here are the big battles Big Tech faces in the coming year.

1. Securing the 2020 U.S. election

Federal officials have documented Russia's operations to manipulate the 2016 election at length and in detail, but the U.S. political system has yet to come to terms with that attack, or plan a rigorous defense against a repeat.

2. Defining the limits of privacy

Congress' failure to pass national privacy legislation last year left the new California Consumer Privacy Act as the de facto law of the land.

  • Facebook's position is that it doesn't need to change its basic method of tracking users under the act because it doesn't sell user data. That premise is likely to be tested as soon as this summer, when California's Attorney General will start enforcing the law.
  • The new privacy-law regime is emerging against a wider backdrop of public concern over new forms of data surveillance, from smartphone location monitoring to voice-assistant recordings to smart doorbell videos to facial recognition.
  • What's next: Surveillance technology is likely to keep evolving faster than the laws intended to neutralize its potential social harms.

3. Coping with the antitrust onslaught

Antitrust cases can drag on for years, but the speed and momentum of multiple investigations into whether Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are engaged in monopolistic practices suggest 2020 will bring some resolution to the cases. That could come in the form of lawsuits or settlements — or the closing of an inquiry, effectively absolving the target company.

  • At a Wall Street Journal event last month, Attorney General William Barr said he'd "like" to see the Justice Department's work completed in 2020.
  • "These things have a cost to the marketplace and businesses," Barr said. "At some point, the government has to fish or cut bait."
  • What's next: Whatever happens at Justice, the Federal Trade Commission has its own investigations, and so do the states. Any one of the three could keep the pressure on these companies.

4. Defending a global industry in an age of "decoupling"

The globalist triumphalism of the '90s and 2000s has given way to Trump-era protectionism and a splintering of the global internet into three distinct regions — the U.S., Europe and China — with fundamentally different legal regimes.

  • China is where the ideal of internet freedom lost out to a government that now successfully monitors its citizens' doings and controls their speech. It has built its own domestic software and services industry that rivals the U.S.-led Big Tech giants.
  • China is also where much of our tech hardware, including most iPhones, get made. That keeps China and the U.S. interdependent — for now.
  • What's next: Security fears and trade frictions are pushing China and the U.S. apart faster than seemed possible just a few years ago.

5. Flipping tech from harm to "wellness"

Overuse of smartphones and the social media apps they bear has left many in the industry and the broader public yearning for less screen time and more control.

Our thought bubble: These stories all interconnect.

  • Protecting users' data also protects elections. (Stolen passwords enabled the theft of emails from Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, and Cambridge Analytica's pilfered trove of Facebook data fueled ad targeting by political campaigns, including Trump's.)
  • A monopoly can keep disregarding privacy rights, or peddling potentially addictive products, more readily than a competitor in a working marketplace.
  • Tech companies are increasingly arguing against efforts to break them up by arguing that they need to be really huge to compete with China — and no matter what ills they're accused of, Chinese companies are worse.
  • Elections will determine who does, or doesn't, push regulators to act against tech companies.

The bottom line: Now that tech has delivered on its promise to "change the world," we're learning just how much trouble all that change can wreak.

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Former Google CEO and others call for U.S.-China tech "bifurcation"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new set of proposals by a group of influential D.C. insiders and tech industry practitioners calling for a degree of "bifurcation" in the U.S. and Chinese tech sectors is circulating in the Biden administration. Axios has obtained a copy.

Why it matters: The idea of "decoupling" certain sectors of the U.S. and Chinese economies felt radical three years ago, when Trump's trade war brought the term into common parlance. But now the strategy has growing bipartisan and even industry support.

Updated Jan 27, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: Global data-driven change

On Thursday, January 27, Axios' Ina Fried hosted a conversation on the social impact of Big Data, featuring Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and former U.S. chief technology officer and founder and CEO of shift7, Megan Smith.

Megan Smith. unpacked how data can help solve some of the biggest equity issues across our economy and society today, and the importance of having everyone at the table.

  • On solving social issues that are exacerbated by new technologies: "It's just not for the tech community to decide [how to fix this] on behalf of all of us, especially because they face extraordinary bias in their hiring practices and their teams' dismissiveness of people who are not of a certain group."
  • On how the government should approach solving problems that cross technological and policy divides: "The key there is less about what and more about who. Who is in the government teams, who is actually in the tech teams? Are they more balanced? How do we get more of society at the table together so that we're more fluent as we work on this?"

Rep. Yvette Clarke highlighted the risks and rewards of using Big Data, as well as the shared responsibility of the public and private sectors to keep the public informed.

  • On how algorithms can amplify existing biases: "[Big Data] can be great in making advances in our civil society. The other side is it can become a mirror of some of the inequities that exist in the real world...and that reflection can be programmed into algorithms."
  • On a balanced approach to technology regulation: "I really want to make sure that the public is educated and informed...[That] we also hold the companies accountable for the ways in which they perpetuate harm in certain respects and reward where they're doing good."

Axios' Chief People Officer Dominique Taylor hosted a View from the Top segment with Intel Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer Sandra Rivera to discuss collaboration and creating change from within the tech industry.

  • "We have convened other industry leaders to really drive meaningful, lasting change forward. This is such a big challenge and opportunity. It doesn't really work that any one company can do [it] alone: We take our role in terms of leading that work by participating, collaborating with other tech giants."

Thank you Intel for sponsoring this event.

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech is outsourcing its hardest content moderation decisions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Faced with the increasingly daunting task of consistent content moderation at scale, Big Tech companies are tossing their hardest decisions to outsiders, hoping to deflect some of the pressure they face for how they govern their platforms.

Why it matters: Every policy change, enforcement action or lack thereof prompts accusations that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are making politically motivated decisions to either be too lax or too harsh. Ceding responsibility to others outside the company may be the future of content moderation if it works.