2020 held unexpected, pivotal moments for the tech world that consumed the news and shaped our pandemic-ridden lives. Here is a look back on some of the most central tech debates and trends in 2020.
- The Tik Tok obsession
Tik Tok, a social media platform known for its short-form dance videos and voice-overs, entertains about 100 million U.S. users on a quarterly basis. While Tik Tok’s popularity skyrocketed this year, its Chinese ownership provoked national security concerns regarding the app’s data collection and governance. In an attempt to prevent Beijing from further data exploitation, the Trump administration announced a ban of Tik Tok from mobile app stores, which has faced notable legal challenges since. It also required that Tik Tok’s parent company sell off its U.S. business if it wants to continue to operate. Without a final deal on the horizon, Tik Tok does not seem to be going anywhere, and the national security concerns raised have not deterred its user base from spending their free time scrolling. Read from my colleague, Claudia Rosett, about the dangers of Tik Tok here.
- Cloud computing in a pandemic
COVID-19 brought about the demand for flexible, portable technology, as working from home became the new norm across the world. Cloud computing was essential for companies to sustain this new norm and, considering its success, will enable employers to offer this remote option even after the pandemic. A recent survey indicates that 60 percent of business leaders in Western Europe and North America expect a minimum of 25 percent of their workforce—and in some cases, 100 percent—to work from home in some capacity after the pandemic. In addition to being perhaps the most prominent trend of 2020, cloud computing will inevitably be a major emerging technology market in 2021, as employers look for increasingly innovative ways to operate remotely and secure their data.
- 5G competition
This year reinforced the urgency of positioning the U.S. as a leader in 5G, particularly in the wake of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, dominating the field. With Huawei banned from U.S. networks, the U.S. has yet to develop a meaningful competitor, although this could be delivered in the new year. 2020 brought valuable federal campaigns to the forefront of this competition, with the Department of Defense funding trials and the Federal Communications Commission lifting regulatory barriers. As 2020 comes to an end, it is evident that 5G is the national tech priority and the crucial player in U.S.-China tech competition. A significant challenge to 2021 will be whether the U.S. can innovate its way out of unsustainable reactions to China, for which the 5G race will be a telling indicator.
- Big tech censorship
While social media allows for greater information-sharing than ever before, 2020 reminded us that it also raises significant questions about who can censor information and why. The rise of “fact-checkers” in an especially divided election season raised concerns amongst conservatives that conservative opinions were being labeled as “disinformation.” In response to his Twitter account being censored, President Trump came out against Section 230, referring to it as a “liability shielding gift,” and vetoed the annual defense bill, complaining that it did not include changes to Section 230. As the censorship debate continues to dominate tech policy, policymakers on both sides of the aisle may look to clarify Section 230 down the road, as the integrity of these platforms will continue to be called into question. Additionally, because of continued user frustration over disinformation claims, platforms like Twitter and Facebook will be forced to become more and more transparent about their content control processes.
With a new Congress and new administration, we will be watching for how the role that public policy plays in technology and innovation changes.
For decades, Washington chose to take a light regulatory touch and allow innovation to develop apart from the heavy hand of government—a wise choice. That time may be over. What may result could be less competition, less freedom, fewer options, and increased costs for consumers.