Charlotte Henry

Tech 2020: From A(pple) to Z(uckerberg)

Is this the decade in which big tech comes to influence our future more than politics can do?

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

When the century began, a screeching modem would still inform most people that they were connecting to the internet. Facebook was just a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, only launching in 2004. It took another three years for the first iPhone to arrive. Given how ubiquitous these technologies are now, remembering a time before them feels akin to looking back into the dark ages. The pace of change has been staggering.

As we begin the next decade, we must expect the rate of technological progress to be just as rapid. Fields such as virtual and augmented reality are going to become more and more commonplace. The widespread introduction of 5G connectivity will put rocket boosters under how many of us communicate.

But one thing that could stifle this progress is overregulation. The growing dominance of certain tech firms has already attracted the attention of regulators around the world. From EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager to the US Democrat presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, lawmakers want to crackdown on what they see as overreach from Silicon Valley. This is only like to increase in the next 12 months.

In the EU, the directives come right from the very top. Incoming EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has backed Vestager’s tough stance. In her pitch for the role, von der Leyen pledged: “We will jointly define standards for this new generation of technologies that will become the global norm.” She and colleagues have also spoken of “technological sovereignty” in Europe, fearing that too much of its technological capacity comes from beyond the continent. We can expect more language like this in the year ahead as von der Leyen and a new team of commissioners finally take office.

Across the Atlantic, Elizabeth Warren is not the only prominent Democrat taking aim at big tech. In a blog post last March, she wrote: “Today’s big tech companies have too much power – too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

Warren, and others who think the same, may have a point - a strengthening of monopolies will certainly not help consumers. She’s also correct to note that technological innovation has always thrived on exciting newcomers having the space to rise, instead of simply being drowned out by big existing players in the market. Established firms stifling this innovation and creativity helps nobody.

However, these politicians will also have to find a way of balancing their tougher stance with the rights of consumers. For instance, some recent moves have indicated that in the near future politicians might be prepared to threaten users’ privacy in the name of antitrust. There are, for instance, new provisions in the most recent iPhone operating that limit the automatic tracking third-party apps can do. Apple says this is to protect users’ privacy, but some lawmakers think it is simply a way of making apps that rival Apple’s own services less effective.

As Warren’s Democratic colleague David Cicilline said in November: “There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favour.”

Perhaps 2020 will see more privacy laws introduced, laws that genuinely help protect users’ data. It is though unclear how many senior US figures will want to pursue the issue in the run-up to an already fractious election. Attacking big tech for being anti-competitive is a more popular, and populist, approach.

The streaming wars officially commenced in 2019 but will really heat up in 2020. Disney’s offering, Disney+, had 10 million subscriptions in the first 24 hours it was available. Having originally launched in the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, quickly followed by Australia and New Zealand, it will expand into other parts of Europe in March. There, it will join Apple TV+, launched a few days before Disney’s service, along with more established players Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. In the US, even more services, such as Comcast NBCUniversal’s Peacock and HBO’s Max service are set to join the battle for subscribers’ eyeballs.

It is great that TV lovers have increasing choice and the ability to watch what they want when they want it. There is though a risk that we will all get subscription fatigue. There is surely a limit to how many monthly payments a user will make. According to a survey by Deloitte, on average, subscribers are willing to pay for three services. We are likely to find out if that figure holds as ever more services go live.

Disinformation has permeated parts of society for centuries. Social media and collapsing public trust in institutions has changed things substantially – and politicians across the globe are looking to exploit this.

That same Deloitte report found that 47 per cent of US consumers were frustrated by the increasing number of subscriptions and the corresponding number of services required in order to be able to watch everything they want. As more and more services emerge, popular content is spread ever more thinly. Companies want to take their own content exclusively to their own platform, and this does not necessarily benefit consumers who want a simple way to binge-watch their favourite boxsets.

5G connectivity is going to be a major step forward and is expected to become more widespread in 2020. Already we’ve seen it rollout in some specific parts of the UK – EE launched its service in 16 cities in 2019 and even supplied 5G connectivity to the Glastonbury festival. Vodafone has also been rolling-out its super-fast connection. However, users need the right kind of device to make use of such a network.

Samsung and some other manufacturers have already started to produce such products. Apple is, crucially, expected to enter the fray with its 2020 iPhone. Such a device is likely to prove hugely popular. Indeed, rumours from the company’s Taiwanese supply chain say that Apple is preparing to sell 100 million 5G iPhones, compared to between 70 and 80 million iPhone 11s.

Talk of even faster networks and compatible phones will mean streaming will become seamless and downloads instant. Some people may even be able to replace home broadband with 5G.

The ongoing trade war between the US and China dominated 2019. It shows few signs of abating in 2020. At the centre of the row between two superpowers has been Chinese firm Huawei. The company’s finance chief Meng Wanzhou, who also happens to be the chairman’s daughter, was arrested in Canada at the end of 2018 as the US sought her extradition. She has been detained in Vancouver ever since, despite Chinese protestations, and continues to fight extradition. Given Huawei’s closeness to the Chinese state, Meng is undoubtedly a pawn in the chess game being played by Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. Interestingly, the firm is still set to provide key elements of the UK’s forthcoming 5G network, despite the protestations of some politicians.

The threat of anti-free trade tit-for-tat tariffs is only making things harder for companies and will ultimately drive up prices for consumers. The issue is hugely relevant for tech firms, with many key elements of the supply chain, as well as billions of potential customers, found in China. The country has four times the number of mobile users than the US, and firms such as Alibaba and Tencent are starting to make their mark on the global stage, competing with US giants.

Ultimately, it all comes down to politics. China often demands US tech firms provide certain functionality or apps, or block certain information, in order to grant them access to their giant market. There is growing evidence that the likes of Google are happy to create China-approved versions of their key products. Doing so would no doubt provide a big boost to a firm’s bottom line, but it may make customers and, indeed staff, question their morals.

In all of this, Apple CEO Tim Cook has proven himself more adept than most business leaders at managing President Trump. Interim tariffs were not applied to some of his company’s products. Cook also announced a major new site in Texas for the development of the high-end Mac Pro computer that the US President paid a visit to too. Cook may have to redouble his diplomatic efforts in the coming months.

In 2016, the Oxford English dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year. The term has only become more relevant ever since. As I highlighted in my book, Not Buying It: The Facts Behind Fake News, the issue is not new. Disinformation has permeated parts of society for centuries. However, social media and collapsing public trust in institutions have obviously changed things substantially – and politicians across the globe are looking to exploit this.

There is increasing pressure on Twitter and Facebook to deal with the scale of misinformation spread on their networks. A key element to this is micro-targeting – campaigns honing an online advert for a very specific, small section of the electorate based on the plethora of data available. This has led to a number of concerns about the kinds of misleading and polarising information certain groups are seeing.

Last October, Twitter responded to the pressure over online political advertising by saying it would no longer accept paid political adverts. The company is though a tiny part of the online advertising market. Google, the biggest player in that space, changed its policy a few weeks later. It said that although it had “never offered granular micro-targeting of election ads, we believe there’s more we can do to further promote increased visibility of election ads.” While it still allowed some targeting for election adverts, it limited the categories campaigners could target to age, gender, and general location at postal code level - a not insignificant change.

There is increasing pressure on Twitter and Facebook to deal with the scale of misinformation spread on their networks. A key element to this is micro-targeting – campaigns honing an online advert for a very specific, small section of the electorate based on the plethora of data available.

Facebook took no such stance. Not only is the social network, which challenges Google for dominance in the online advertising market, going to continue to take paid-for political ads, it is not going to fact check them in the way it does other content. The company has tried to portray this as a bid to protect free speech, but it has been widely criticised. Following a very public speech from CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the subject, a spokesperson for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was highly sceptical - saying Zuckerberg had “attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line, and his choice to cloak Facebook’s policy in a feigned concern for free expression demonstrates how unprepared his company is for this unique moment in our history and how little it has learned over the past few years.” This is a view shared by many others.

The Biden campaign’s thinly veiled reference to the election of President Trump underlines that many of the President’s opponents still blame his ascension to the Oval Office on social media. The spotlight on Facebook, and Zuckerberg in particular, is only going to get brighter as the President’s re-election bid gets into full swing.

As we start a new decade, we can look forward to both iteration and innovation in technology. Some of our favourite services and gadgets will get even better. Innovation in a variety of fields will take us to places we can only dream of now. Instead of hitting CTL-ALT-DELETE, technologists will undoubtedly use 2020 to keep progressing relentlessly. In some ways the titans of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs in London and Tel Aviv will influence our future far more than any politician. The potential consequences their products might have for business, media and society at large must not be underestimated.

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