2018 In Review: What Happened In The World Of Big Tech

Dec 10, 2018
Originally published on January 4, 2019 11:15 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now a look at the year in big tech in this week's All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: In 2018, we've gotten a clear look at some of the uglier results of Silicon Valley's move-fast-and-break-things philosophy. Here to talk about the year that was for big tech are two members of NPR's tech team, Alina Selyukh - hey there, Alina...

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: ...And Jasmine Garsd. Welcome back, Jasmine.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So Alina, I want to start with you because you've been covering Facebook, which has had a lot of troubles this year. Give us a recap of what went down.

SELYUKH: Super short - you know, Cambridge Analytica started this year on a low note for Facebook, and we went into many months of disclosures of massive Russia-backed disinformation campaigns, then a huge discovery of an Iranian-backed disinformation campaign, several data breaches and news of just how hectic it has been inside Facebook through all of this.

CORNISH: What's been the fallout? For a long time, this company and especially its leadership has seemed untouchable.

SELYUKH: A lot of the fallout actually had to do with the fact that Facebook stayed silent for a really long time as these crises started emerging. And then of course we did get Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill, where he was grilled for many, many hours. And there, he essentially started apologizing.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech as well as developers and data privacy. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake.

SELYUKH: This whole year started with Mark Zuckerberg sort of offering this lofty goal of fixing Facebook and really hunkering down on what it was meant to be to begin with, which is a fun place to hang out with friends and family. It's safe to say we're now at the end of the year, and Facebook only continues to get deeper and deeper into the conversation of what really is the purpose and the effect of the social network that has now encompassed most of the country.

CORNISH: And of course this isn't just about data breaches or data sharing. It's felt like this is the year that social media companies have been asked real questions about their moral obligations to society. Jasmine, can you talk a little bit about that?

GARSD: Yeah. Facebook got into serious hot water this year when it stated that it would allow Holocaust deniers because that's just a matter of free speech. Also there was the case of Myanmar where military officials intentionally waged a misinformation campaign against the Rohingya Muslim population. And xenophobic fears were stoked. There was ultimately an ethnic cleansing and a mass displacement. And the United Nations condemned Facebook's role in being slow and ineffective in addressing this. So definitely these social media platforms - and it's not just Facebook - have been grappling with the question of, what is hate speech? What is a threat? Should free speech be allowed for everyone.

SELYUKH: And as the companies have been trying to make moves to essentially clean up their platforms, they have also walked into hot water politically, and they've been accused of anti-conservative biases. And that has made it even more challenging for them to sort of appease the political party and appear neutral while also trying to decide just how much they should be involved in moderating speech on their platforms.

CORNISH: How has this resonated among the community of workers for these companies? Have we been seeing people speak up, speak out?

GARSD: I think that the best example of that is Google. This year was the year in which Google employees around the world protested, whether it was about how they are treated within the company. But also there were protests about various projects Google has embarked on with governments, with the military. And, yeah, we saw this this moment in which tech workers themselves are reckoning with these companies.

SELYUKH: And there's a bit to add, too, about the interesting contrast between how the companies have been dealing with this really rough year. So Google - as Jasmine's saying, they're staging protests and walkouts. At Facebook, it has been the reverse of that, which is there's been closing of the ranks, really this unified internal comment about how, you know, we need to come together as a company but also this broader conversation about, you know, this tech work that used to be so glamorous. What does it really stand for? And did people, you know, go into this work for the purposes that they were still fulfilling?

I've heard from folks inside Amazon talking about how frustrating they find it to be in this situation where in any conversation about big tech that spawns from the Facebook crisis, they end up being pulled in and being part of the criticism because they are part of this big tech, Silicon Valley community.

CORNISH: Alina, catch us up on Amazon. That's a company we haven't been talking about a lot here even though they sort of had a splashy year in talking about where to put their second headquarters.

SELYUKH: Yes. This was one of the biggest business stories of the year, and it became extremely anticlimactic in the end. Amazon spent months luring cities and towns from all across the country to bid for these new second headquarters. And then in the end, the company decided to split it among two communities which are really large already. It's the suburb of Washington, D.C., and then Queens in New York City. And the reaction has been disillusioned by a lot of people in the business community, including among the people in the communities that are going to play host to these new headquarters.

GARSD: Yeah. I spoke to councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer recently. He's from Queens, and here's what he had to say.

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JIMMY VAN BRAMER: I would feel much better about us throwing $3 billion at solving the crisis in public housing in the city of New York than for damn sure throwing it at Jeff Bezos.

SELYUKH: And so the next question is going to be what exactly these communities get for investing a large amount of taxpayer money into helping Amazon build these really large new offices.

CORNISH: Last question - it's a big-picture one, which is, how do you sum up the lasting changes to the tech industry from all of this? What lessons will they have learned?

GARSD: I think this was the year in which the public fell out of love a little bit with big tech. And just for Facebook, for example, in the U.S., user growth has plateaued. In Europe, it's decreased. So I think, yeah, it's the year in which the public became disillusioned and critical of these big tech companies.

SELYUKH: And it's also a year when a lot of people have come to understand at a much deeper level what exactly these companies sell. And even around dinner tables around the country, I know people are having conversations about what happens when you sign up for a free service - finally starting to talk about what the product is. And in many cases, it is the data that gets collected about you, and this data is increasingly extremely detailed and very wide-ranging.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Alina, thank you.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

CORNISH: And NPR's Jasmine Garsd, thanks for sharing with us, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.