The Big Stories: Tech in 2020

The Big Stories: Tech in 2020

What a year 2020 has been. The common sentiment of worst. year. ever. is totally understandable and relatable: from the obvious global pandemic and the and the racist, disastrous response from the US government to the prospects of conflict and war with major powers like Russia and China, there’s been a lot of news this year. Many people have forgotten that we began this same year with the US assassination of an Iranian general in Iraq. It can be difficult to remember everything that’s happened in the past few weeks, let alone the year.

Tech has been no different. From Zoom to the elections, Congressional hearings and attacks on online speech, this year’s stories have been a whirlwind.

The rise – and fall – and rise of Zoom

The way many of us work, learn, socialize, worship and participate in government fundamentally changed in 2020 as office buildings, houses of worship, schools and municipalities took everything online.

It’s been a rough year for Zoom. Financially, the stock is up over 411% at around $350 per share as of the time of this article. The software quickly took the lead over competitors like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Cisco’s WebEx and others because of its ease of use. The growth seemed exponential – as more people got used to Zoom, they then invited their own contacts to use the service for work and play.

Unfortunately, the newfound popularity exposed a number of issues with the service. The Windows version had a vulnerability that could reveal your password. On a Mac, the software’s installer did some really janky stuff that left computers at risk of attack. Then, we learned that Zoom’s claim of end-to-end encryption was just wrong. Zoom has since issued multiple updates to their software to fix security vulnerabilities, and has started rolling out true end-to-end encryption. See this Tech for the People article for details on how – and when – to turn it on.

By April, Zoom bombing was practically a household word. Especially with Zoom’s lax default meeting security settings at the time, it was pretty easy for anyone to get into a meeting if they had the meeting number – from that link you share when you’re scheduling a meeting. From pranks to racist, pornographic and anti-Semitic attacks, Zoom bombings are still happening and can be

TikTok resets the clock

In October, it looked like we’d have to say goodbye to video sharing service TikTok. In its pervasive anti-China campaign, the US government under an Executive Order by Trump tried to force ByteDance, TikTok’s corporate owner and a Chinese company, to divest itself from any assets in the US.

TikTok sued and is in the clear – for now. In November, the Commerce Department issued a notice that it would not enforce the order against TikTok. Cat videos and guys drinking juice on skateboards live another day.

We saved .org

We did it! The Internet Society and Public Interest Registry to sell the .org top-level domain to a private equity firm – for $1.1 billion. Non-profits, advocacy and community organizations were rightly outraged. The change would put control over domain names ending in .org (like this one, techforthepeople.org) in the hands of a private company interested only in profit. That group, Ethos Capital could then decide who could register a .org domain, what was acceptable content, and crucially how much registering .org domain would cost.

.org is one of the original top-level domains on the Internet. Like .com and .net, TLDs have traditionally signified what sector the owner belongs to: .com for commercial, .net for network, .org for (non-profit or other) organization, .gov for government, and so on.

871 organizations and 27,183 people signed on to the SaveDotOrg.org public letter demanding that ISOC and PIR halt the sale of .org to Ethos Capital. And we won: the sale was rejected in April.

No one understood Section 230

Trump hates it! Really, really, really hates it. The Republicans hate it, too, because Trump does.

Joe Biden isn’t a fan, either. He just doesn’t yell about it as much on Twitter.

And none of them really understand what it is, or what the Internet would look like without it.

As I wrote in October, “The hearings weren’t really about Section 230. The Republicans used them as a platform to continue setting the public up to accept the idea that social media companies subverted the 2020 election. Democrats used them to blame Russia instead of themselves for 2016.”

Section 230 is pretty simple: part one states that online platforms aren’t responsible for the content their users post on them. Part two gives the same platforms a civil liability shield if they remove “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” material. Facebook and Twitter are taking most of the attack on 230, but the law is critically important and helps keep discussion on the Internet free: Any website that allows users to post or upload their own content could have to moderate every single thing or face criminal or civil charges for the content posted. Removing 230 would effectively shut down small discussions and have a serious impact on the larger social networking sites.

Private corporations sell your public info to the government

The national surveillance state pulls out all the stops to get at your data. Whether it’s spying on your web browsing, looking through your phone, reading your emails or seeing who you’re calling & texting, agencies from the NSA to local police departments are finding new and creative ways to track us.

At Motherboard, Joseph Cox covered a year-long story about the California DMV selling driver’s license information to private investigators.

The IRS, CBP, Air Force, US Marshals Service, FBI, Secret Service and others are using services from companies like Babel Street, Ventel and others to buy location data. That data is often from apps that you install on your phone – and would never expect to sell information to a third-party that then sells it to the government.

The agencies are doing this to get around legal requirements to get a warrant – to prove a basic need for the surveillance – in front of a judge.

And this year, Tech for the People broke the story on Babel Synthesis, Babel Street’s new product that monitors social media connections. Babel Street’s own promotional materials use the example of tracking “antifa” and other leftists on Twitter.

What’s coming in 2021 for Tech for the People

This site has grown tremendously in 2020, and it’s been a fantastic year. Thank you to everyone who has read and shared stories, reached out on social media and email, donated, or otherwise contributed to supporting the project.

This is the part where I humbly ask for money: If you’re able to support Tech for the People into 2021 and beyond, consider becoming a Patron at Patreon. If a one-time donation is more your thing, I’ve also got PayPal and Venmo – just drop “Tech for the People” in the notes.

Again, thank you for everything – see you with some exciting content in January!