Technology In 2020: Big Tech Goes To Washington; Online Shopping Gets A Pandemic BoostPlay
This year, we turned Zoom into a verb, Airbnb into a pandemic refuge and watched as lawmakers accused big tech of illegally squashing the competition.
Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google faced heated federal scrutiny in 2020. And now at least two of those companies, Google and Facebook, are the subjects of antitrust lawsuits from federal regulators and state attorneys general — something Axios chief technology correspondent Ina Fried says hasn’t been seen since the Microsoft trial two decades ago.
Rani Molla, senior data reporter for Recode, says the “sheer number of cases” filed so far signals significant changes may result from Washington’s renewed interest in antitrust. Three cases have been filed against Google, one against Facebook, and Molla expects Apple and Amazon will see charges filed against them in the future.
“Alternatively, Congress could certainly pass legislation that could govern these tech companies a little bit more than we've been doing,” Molla says.
These bipartisan lawsuits against Facebook and Google are also a sign that Democrats and Republicans have found “some common ground” in a year where partisanship was high, Fried says. However, lawmakers had differing frustrations with the companies, such as Republicans claiming anti-conservative bias in big tech.
Despite the legal challenges, big tech thrived this year. Fried says their banner year didn’t come as a surprise.
Virtually connecting with friends and working from home are just two examples of how the internet made the pandemic “somewhat bearable” for some people, she says.
“Just imagine how much worse this year would have been 10 years ago, 15 years ago, before we had video games, Minecraft, Roblox, Peloton — all the things that enabled some semblance of normalcy or at least an alternative to the way we used to do things,” Fried says.
Airbnb’s Pandemic Success
Molla: “I think it points to a fundamental thing about software companies and a lot of tech companies these days in that a lot of these companies don't actually own the thing that they're selling. Airbnb is the software that rents out people's rooms or homes, so they didn't have to suffer necessarily as bad. … One of those flukes of the pandemic [is] that they're able to sort of pivot their site to gear it more toward, ‘Hey, if I live in New York City, where’s a place in upstate New York that I could get out of my tiny apartment for?’
Amazon’s Dominance And The Switch To E-Commerce
Molla: “The move to e-commerce has been a decade long. This was just sort of one of those final pushes. It was harder to convince people to say, get their groceries online, but during the pandemic, that became a necessity for a lot of people. And I think once a large portion of the population has had exposure to buying things online, it's kind of hard to go back from there.”
Fried: “I would agree. I would just say that a little bit of a contrarian take on e-commerce is that really the traditional commerce companies, all the people that operate bricks and mortar, whether it's big companies or small businesses, had been sort of slowly suffocating, slowly seeing their business run off to Amazon and other e-commerce companies. The pandemic … it took away all their business temporarily, not just what was slowly shifting to Amazon, but everything forced them to learn things like curbside delivery, taking orders online and fulfilling them locally. Those are actually skills that will benefit them. So I still expect Amazon to keep chipping away and taking more market share. But I do think there is perhaps a silver lining for retailers that they had to learn how to do some of their business online this year, and those skills may well serve them in the years to come.”
How WeWork Could Bounce Back
Molla: “This is another one of those just contrary stories that came out of the pandemic — a company that actually did well. WeWork, to be clear, isn't doing super well. They're just losing less money than they used to. And all the real estate experts I've been speaking with think that this sort of space is going to be doing really well when the pandemic is over. And part of that is because companies that rent office space don't really know where their workforce is going to be. Many of us, especially if you have an office job, are working remotely. We might have moved. There's going to be a more dispersed workforce. So when your company doesn't know quite where your workforce is going to be, they don't really want to have these long term leases, you know, 10, 15 year leases on an office space. That's why things like WeWork and its competitors who offer month to month contracts for space may do really well when this is all over.”
Social Media Platforms Take A Stand Against Misinformation
Fried: “I'm going to say not yet. I'm going to say this was the year that the tech companies started to take it more seriously. But I don't think we've hit the turning point. I still feel like misinformation is spreading faster. Don't forget that the tech companies are labeling things, but often by the time they label them, they've already spread very widely. And also we've seen research that shows that just labeling content tends to reinforce people's already perceived impressions. So if they see the tech companies as liberally biased, a warning flag actually sort of feeds into that. So I still think there need to be more effective methods. We're losing the battle. We're having debates every day about things that should be just accepted facts. And I don't feel good about where we're at as a society.”
Overshadowed Tech Stories
Fried: “I think we're still, especially on the Congress and regulatory front, fighting the battles we can see, which obviously makes sense. You fight the battles you can see. But I think the invisible battle against algorithms that have bias is going to be increasingly more important. So I think the idea that decisions are being made by a set of characteristics that we don't really understand, whether that's getting a loan, getting a job, getting a house, all these things. And I think that's going to be a big issue for 2021 and the years to come.”
Molla: “One thing that was sort of highlighted this year was our access to broadband. It became so important that if we wanted to do anything, social life or work, we had to have fast internet. And I think because of the pandemic, the issue of inequality and broadband has really been highlighted.”
Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on December 28, 2020.