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.
- Election meddling can take two forms — direct attempts to break into election systems, and broader disinformation operations intended to mislead voters, sow discord and spread disillusionment.
- The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to prioritize election defense, worried that focusing on the Russian threat might raise questions about Trump's 2016 win.
- That has left the election security fight in the hands of state and local governments — and the tech companies themselves.
- What's next: Tech firms, social media platforms, news outlets and government agencies all face enormous tests between now and November.
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.
- Users love the efficiency of their phones and their ability to stay connected to the people and services they care about. They're less happy about the dopamine-hit feedback loop that makes it hard to stop scrolling to the next social media post.
- Companies have already shifted their product dials toward "wellness," as with Facebook's emphasis on family-and-friends interactions or Apple's promotion of health-oriented apps for the iPhone and Watch.
- Some social media platforms are also trying to change algorithmic models that favor divisive, attention-grabbing voices.
- What's next: Before long, the push for "digital wellness" is going to collide head-on with the platforms' business models, which depend on engagement-fueled growth and data-mining-driven ad sales.
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.