Over the last decade, lawmakers and regulators slowly woke up to the consequences of the tech industry’s unchecked rise in power. In the 2020s, they’ll try to take back control.
The decade will kick off with a bang: Tech companies will feel the heat this year from a presidential election, increased antitrust scrutiny in Washington and a new privacy law that’s just coming into effect in California. Expect Congress to be focused on tech’s role in the campaigns and fighting off disinformation, while states also make greater investments in regulating the industry.
Here are (some) of the top issues we’ll be tracking in 2020:
1. Tech companies will grapple with their responsibility to separate fact from fiction online – especially during a closely watched presidential election cycle.
Their first test of 2020 came before many had even recovered from their New Years’ celebrations. A deceptively edited video of former vice president Joe Biden that widely circulated on Twitter last week could be a harbinger of disinformation in the election.
Twitter confirmed Friday that it would not remove the 19-second clip, which was edited to make the Democratic presidential candidate appear racist. The video’s spread was bolstered by several reporters and people with large Twitter followings, who shared it with little context.
As my colleague Greg Sargent wrote: “If you thought the 2016 election was awash in disinformation and lies, get ready: The 2020 election is going to make that affair look like a knitting session.”
Biden is warning that any Democratic nominee would be vulnerable to disinformation in the aftermath of the video’s spread, according to The New York Times. That could put even more pressure on Silicon Valley companies to invest in rooting out falsehoods on their platform and set the stage for battles between candidates and companies in the coming years.
2. Disinformation tactics will evolve as Silicon Valley invests heavily to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election.
The cast of actors who could potentially target the 2020 races is much broader – and their arsenal of weapons is constantly evolving.
Russia is no longer the only threat. Iran and China have shown that they are also investing in influence operations on social media. Domestic actors also played a significant role in spreading disinformation in the 2018 midterms.
The edited Biden video, and a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that went viral last year, show how powerful video editing can be in creating a false political narrative. And researchers warn that deepfakes – which allow people to use artificial intelligence to make it appear someone is saying or doing something that never happened – are developing swiftly and creating new concerns.
Expect these evolutions to be a key focus of Washington lawmakers in the coming weeks. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will kick things off Wednesday with a hearing on “manipulation and deception in the digital age.”
3. California’s new privacy law took effect on Jan. 1, and other states will consider adopting their own data-collection restrictions in the absence of federal action.
It’s official. California residents have new controls over their privacy. But tech companies still have some time before enforcement of the law begins in six months, so expect them to spend the first half of the year adjusting to the new regulation.
In the absence of federal action in Washington last year, other states are considering their own privacy legislation. The tech industry is closely watching states like New York and Washington, which could adopt their own privacy legislation in the coming months.
This flurry of activity at the state level is prompting the industry’s lobbying groups to invest more in states, Axios’s Kim Hart and Margaret Harding McGill write. States are also expected to take a greater role on issues such as autonomous vehicles and facial recognition.
4. Tech giants’ power and size will be under the microscope as antitrust investigations heat up at the federal and state level.
Antitrust will continue to dominate the tech policy debate, especially as the House subcommittee leading an antitrust investigation into Big Tech plans to release a report on its findings in the first half of 2020.
The action on the Hill comes as the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department have their own ongoing probes of the tech giants, and states attorneys general are also launching investigations of companies including Facebook and Google.
Any developments in these investigations could become a key topic on the campaign trail. Many Democratic candidates have been weighing in on their positions on breaking up Big Tech as they try to differentiate their economic platforms.
5. The industry’s treatment of contract workers will face a reckoning – starting with a law targeting gig-economy workers known as AB5 in California.
Companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates built entirely new business models by relying heavily on contract workers to power their driving and delivery workforces. But a new law in California that aims to reclassify these gig workers as full-time employees could pose an existential threat to that way of doing business.
AB5 took effect last week, and the companies are stepping up their efforts to ensure that they don’t have to reclassify their drivers. My colleague Faiz Siddiqui this morning reports that Uber has launched an internal initiative known as “Project Luigi” to fight the law. The initiative aimed to revamp aspects of the app to make it more friendly to California drivers, including adding the ability to see estimated trip fares up front and then reject a trip without penalty.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Uber and Postmates sued California to challenge the legislation on the grounds that it “violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process because of how it targets some workers and companies.” They’re also pushing a ballot initiative to counter the law in California in 2020.