How tech *might* get better than ever in 2021

Goodbye, 2020! You won’t be missed. And as vaccines start to be administered worldwide, we can be reasonably hopeful the crisis will end in 2021. The other good news is that pressure on big tech to be more responsible is not easing up at all, au contraire. Whence these reasons why, this year, technology may finally snap out of some of the darker trends we’ve been tracking since 2017-18. For example…

Megastars are bashing big tech

December 20, Madonna told her 15 million Instagram fans that… “Instagram’s new cyber surveillance policies allow Mark Zuckerberg to spy on you and your family, steal your most intimate secrets and monitor your compliance with government mandates through all your devices – including your television – and sell your data to government and industry or punish you for disobedience. #dictatorship“. Then she carried on ‘gramming like a maniac (12 more timeline posts followed until the end of the year, not to mention countless stories). But her point was made: even the “queen of pop” is not accepting Facebook’s increasingly questionable moral stance.

Ten days later, Selena Gomez went one step further by informing her 64 million Twitter followers that, despite its claims to the contrary, Facebook is not doing enough to stop Covid-related fake news spreading on its platforms, sharing a video from the UK’s Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which affirms that only 5% of such posts are taken down.

At a time when a third of Americans — and around 60% of French people — are saying they won’t take covid vaccines, Facebook’s action on this topic is bound to be a make-or-break factor.

It’s too soon to say what posts like this will change for now. But they give a whole new weight to a movement only publicly supported so far by activists like Sacha Baron Cohen. Who must be feeling a lot less lonely now, despite having played such a major role in Trump’s defeat via the nuclear satire of “Borat 2″…

Trump banned from Twitter and Facebook

OK, you knew about this already. And with just a couple of weeks of his presidency left to go, Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook (temporarily) and Twitter (permanently), further to his encouraging MAGA and Qanon clowns to take over the Capitol, should’ve come a lot sooner. Yet this remains the biggest admission yet of the true power of these platforms. After all, Trump still has the nuclear codes… but the permanent removal of his favourite mouthpiece is a resounding recognition of the damage Twitter can do. One other stand-out element of this major sea change: for once, Facebook did the right thing before Twitter, albeit “indefinitely”, as Zuckerberg lamely put it. Is the company becoming more responsible, little by little?

GAFA are going to court, big time

What goes around, comes around: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have never been in such big legal trouble. And it’s not just because their CEOs were hauled up in front of Congress for long-winded yet ultimately-unproductive Zoom interrogations earlier this year. As Protocol handily lists, there are currently four high-profile US antitrust cases underway that big tech could quite possibly lose. First and foremost, one filed by the US Department of Justice in October, which accuses Google of unfairly leveraging “exclusion contracts”, for example the $12bn deal whereby Google is the iPhone’s default search engine. But that’s not all. A coalition of 48 attorneys general and market regulator the FTC is pushing Facebook to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram, on the grounds that the two acquisitions were designed to hobble competitors (something Zuckerberg practically admitted to Congress earlier in the year); another 35 attorneys general aims to rein in Google’s tendency to stamp out its competitors in its domain of predilection, namely search; and a third coalition of attorneys aims to prove that Facebook and Google worked together to lock down the online advertising market. As the Wall Street Journal details, Facebook agreed to spend $500m per year on Google ads as part of a deal, cut in “September 2018, in which Facebook agreed not to compete with Google’s online advertising tools in return for special treatment when it used them,” as the WSJ puts it.

And that’s just the US… in Europe, the European Commission has charged Amazon with using the private data it collects from third-party vendors on its platform to unfairly compete against them, reports the WSJ. This allegation concurs with other reports – including this essential article, also on the Wall Street Journal (decidedly on fire at the moment) – that one particular camera tripod maker was making millions via Amazon’s Marketplace, until the behemoth started selling its own copy of said product, effectively pushing the product’s originator out of business. Countless other examples of such malpractice exist. Enough to justify the EC flexing its power to fine Amazon up to 10% of its turnover, or up to $28bn? We will see…

Google is finally getting responsible about kids+tech

When her iPhone died this month, I was wont to give my 14-year-old an Android, as Apple has a far better privacy record, notably as iPhones don’t send data to Apple several times per day. But as an unused Android handset was waiting in a cupboard, that’s what she got. Did money trump principles again? Not necessarily! On creating the obligatory Google account for her to use the phone with, I discovered that said account has to be linked to a parent’s — i.e. mine — as for any under 15 year-old’s account. This in turn sets up a shared family account, whose details are handily grouped together here, and which crucially lets you define how your offspring accesses online data. You can, for example, put in place a kid-friendly content filter on Chrome on their phone (I did), limit what they can see on YouTube (I didn’t, as YT is pretty handy at keeping pr0n off its platform), plus other rather reassuring settings (although I didn’t see the option “don’t target my kid with advertising…”) The next step is to install the Family Link, the equivalent of Apple’s Screen Time, which lets you limit the amount of time your kid spends on each app. I didn’t activate that either, but it’s a useful threat to have up your sleeve. And now, every time she downloads a new app, I get an email telling me what it is. So, Google making childrens’ digital experiences more responsible: who’d a thunk it?

Apple & Tesla are standing up to Facebook

Speaking of privacy, a major row erupted just before Christmas 2020, when Apple introduced new privacy ID cards for all iOS apps. They showed, in one fell swoop, how little data its apps collect, and how much Facebook’s do… (image via this rather good Forbes piece):

Facebook took offense, so much so that it took out full page ads in the press to proclaim its innocence. Naturally, no one was having it. And whilst usage of apps like WhatsApp is still booming, the cat is out of the bag: just because its messages are encrypted doesn’t mean Facebook isn’t looking at everything else it can – when messages were sent, to whom, which groups your in… i.e. metadata – to feed its ever-hungry ad-targeting algorithms.

Rather than take a hint, Facebook instead went on to shoot itself in the foot. The latest update to its messaging app, WhatsApp, forces users to accept their metadata — that is, everything but the content of their conversations — be shared with Facebook, to improve the social network’s ad targeting. Fortunately, EU & UK citizens are protected from most of this data-hoovering. But it was still too late. January 7, a tweet from Tesla boss Elon Musk simply said “Use Signal“. 40k+ retweets and a couple of days later, the privacy-friendly alternative to WhatsApp — which doesn’t sell your data because it doesn’t even access it — was trending on Twitter, at the top of many countries’ app store rankings, and Signal was so submerged by demands to join, it couldn’t get the validation codes quick enough. Responsible tech in motion…

Orange employees are turning against 5G

5G technology mainly hit the headlines in 2020 for violent protests, notably in the UK, from conspiracy theorists who claimed the mobile protocol was causing coronavirus, and so burned down antennae. Less reported was the fact that dissent is growing within the ranks of operators themselves. In France, as Bloomberg reported in September, not only did the head of one of the country’s leading operators, Bouygues Telecom, write earlier in the year that rolling out 5G shouldn’t be a priority in the year of Covid, at Orange, France’s biggest telecom by far, employees are increasingly expressing reserves about 5G, notably via the firm’s internal social network. Says Bloomberg:

“The Orange memos (which have been circulating internally since October 2019) were written by “I’m So Green,” a group of employees that says it has around 1,000 members. Bloomberg obtained a copy of the second, 24-page memo titled “Without 5G: Orange in The Future World.” It said the main beneficiaries of 5G will be smartphone makers, tech platforms, such as Whatsapp or YouTube, and the government.”

The environmental argument against 5G, that has since been picked up by France’s Green party, is that it consumes three times more energy than 4G, for questionable benefits (‘yes, it’s much faster than 4G, but still: why do we need it?’, in essence). None of which has stopped said French operators from rolling out their first 5G offers, just in time for Christmas. None of them pointing out, of course, that 5G tech isn’t available everywhere in France yet…

Google employees form its first ever union

Similarly disgruntled Google employees have also come out of the woods, expressing their frustration at a series of anti-worker moves like the recent dismissal of engineer Timnit Gebru for underlining the potential racial bias of the firm’s AI systems, by announcing the company’s first ever trade union. Whilst the couple of hundred members of the Alphabet Workers Union are not yet fully representative of the 132,000 total employees of Google’s parent company, the move remains historic for a sector that has to date discouraged this sort of thing. “This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” Google software engineer Dylan Baker said in a statement. “We will elect representatives, we will make decisions democratically, we will pay dues, and we will hire skilled organizers to ensure all workers at Google know they can work with us if they actually want to see their company reflect their values.” The union’s next challenge, as TechCrunch points out, is for management to recognise it as such; a process which took ten months at Kickstarter. But given Google’s considerably larger size, this major development is likely to cause waves…

Responsible tech events are go!

Whilst the responsible tech movement has been running for a while, there haven’t been too many events for concerned people to gather and exchange ideas. Covid obviously didn’t help on that front. But quickly leaping on the online event trend is the New_ Public Festival, where sector-leading thinkers like The Center for Humane Tech’s Tristan Harris, or renowned writer and activist Cory Doctorow, will gather “to help envision the future of digital public space”, i.e. discuss how we can get back to a more benevolent form of public exchange online, free of the financial imperatives that have created many of today’s online problems. Organised by Civic Signals, the event is unfortunately sold out at time of writing. We’re unsure how an online event can be full, but hey… you can catch the livestream on newpublic.org/festival, January 12-14. ‘See’ you there! And here’s hoping this is the first of many similar global events…

Big tech = Big tobacco?

Oh and one last thing: noticed how big tech is increasingly compared with big tobacco? Expect that comparison to catch on in 2021…

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