In 2019, the swirl of scrutiny and souring public opinion around Big Tech coalesced into serious regulatory threats as every relevant government body in the country launched investigations into the largest and most significant technology companies in the world.
Lawmakers pointed fingers at tech companies like Facebook, Google’s YouTube and Twitter as they worked to assign blame in the aftermath of horrific mass shootings and acts of terror, which went viral online. And they lambasted the social media companies for allowing lies and smears about politicians to spill unabated across their platforms.
The upcoming year is almost certain to bring an intensified level of antagonism and friction between the top tech companies and the U.S. government, with a stronger threat of regulatory action than ever before.
Here are the top tech policy stories to watch for in 2020.
In 2020, the word “antitrust” will become near-synonymous with “Big Tech.”
During the second half of 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), nearly every state attorney general and a key House Committee all announced separate antitrust probes into the unparalleled power and dominance of the top tech companies. The level of scrutiny signals the government intends to rein in those companies, but it is unclear when or how.
Only the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple is certain to wrap up during 2020. The man leading the probe, House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), is vowing to put out a report about their findings in the “early part of 2020.”
Then, Cicilline says, he will unveil legislation designed to update centuries-old antitrust laws for the digital age.
“We want to introduce legislation with sufficient time to actually act on it,” Cicilline told The Hill.
“I think it will be the year that we have some very strong proposals to respond to the absence of competition in the digital marketplace, and to demonstrate that these big technology companies can’t be trusted to regulate themselves,” Cicilline said. “It requires the active participation of Congress.”
It’s yet to be seen how much support he will get in the Senate, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has called for breaking up the big tech companies on the campaign trail, is a likely ally.
Meanwhile, the separate but overlapping coalitions of state attorneys general, encompassing nearly every state in the U.S. besides California, will forge ahead in their investigations of Google and Facebook. Those battles are likely to spill into the courts as the companies fight tooth and nail against extensive document requests.
Antitrust experts said it’s unlikely that the DOJ and FTC will wrap up their probes this upcoming year, pointing out that investigations of this scale often take years.
TikTok, a buzzy social media app built around short-form videos set to music, found itself at the center of an unprecedented political firestorm when it burst into Western markets in 2019. It was the first time a Chinese-owned social media app made significant inroads in the U.S.
But the company is in a tenuous position as anti-Chinese sentiment reaches a fever pitch in Congress, the technological race between the U.S. and China intensifies, and the two economic superpowers wrangle over a potential trade deal.
Top lawmakers also jumped into the fray, deeming TikTok a national security threat over its ties to China and its unfettered access to personal information on its millions of U.S. users, many of whom are young children.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a $75 billion Chinese media conglomerate, which must deal with a Chinese law requiring companies to provide assistance to Beijing.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an outspoken tech critic who has waged a one-man battle against TikTok in the Senate, said “more and more people” are understanding the “significant” threats posed by the Chinese-owned app with 500 million monthly active users.
So far, there’s little evidence that TikTok has shared any data on U.S. users with the Chinese government. But industry watchers say the scrutiny of TikTok’s ties to Beijing is only going to become more serious as a little-known U.S. government entity, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, continues to investigate the national security implications of ByteDance’s acquisition of TikTok.
In response, the company will likely work overtime to distance itself from China and lay down roots in the U.S., building out its team of American advisors and lobbyists to underline the daylight between itself and the Chinese Communist Party.
Expect Monument Advocacy, Bytedance’s high-profile Washington lobbyists, to appear more frequently in the halls of Congress as they work to beat back accusations of Chinese surveillance and censorship.
“In 2020, we plan to continue building out our senior US leadership team, which we began at the start of 2019, and accelerated throughout the year,” a TikTok spokesperson told The Hill.
But there’s likely little the company can do to appease lawmakers, most prominently Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been beating the anti-TikTok drum with the support of Republican China hawks in the Senate. Schumer has raised concerns about multiple apps with connections to foreign countries.
A Schumer spokesman told The Hill that the Democratic Senate leader has “been raising concerns, and will continue to raise these concerns, with foreign owned apps that could pose a threat to US national security and Americans’ privacy.”
Google v. Oracle
In 2020, the “copyright case of the decade” will reach the Supreme Court, setting the stage for a finale in the long-running saga of Google vs. Oracle, a legal battle that could fundamentally change how tech companies build their products.
After nearly a decade of dramatic arguments in lower courts, the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Google violated federal copyright law when it used some of Oracle’s programming language to build its Android operating system.
Google says the software industry should remain open and allow engineers to build freely on one another’s platforms and use one another’s systems. But Oracle is accusing the search giant of stealing lines of its code, claiming almost $9 billion in damages. At issue is an unresolved question: whether it’s possible for a company to copyright an application programming interface (API), a vital tool that enables applications to communicate with one another.
Silicon Valley has watched the case closely since Oracle first sued Google in the Northern District of California in 2010. But now the contentious copyright battle is coming to Washington, D.C., leaving the future of the software industry in the hands of several wild-card justices who don’t have much history in digital copyright law.
“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case and we hope that the Court reaffirms the importance of software interoperability in American competitiveness,” Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesperson, said. “Developers should be able to create applications across platforms and not be locked into one company’s software.”
Google’s brief is due by the beginning of January while Oracle’s is due by February, teeing up a Supreme Court hearing by the end of March and a ruling by about mid-2020 or later.
California’s privacy law
Congress has been struggling to work up even a draft of the nation’s first comprehensive privacy law, legislation that would draw sorely-needed guardrails around how companies are allowed to collect and use the personal information they’ve amassed on hundreds of millions of U.S. users.
Top lawmakers have pledged they will have a wide-reaching privacy law passed and signed by the end of 2020. But they’ve blown past a slew of deadlines already since beginning bipartisan negotiations at the start of 2019. Even a key senator at the center of the privacy talks cast doubt on whether 2020 will be the “year of the privacy bill.”
“I have faith in the ability to get a strong privacy bill with willing partners,” Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told reporters, days before Congress left for the holiday recess. “I don’t know if the United States Senate has the will to dedicate floor time to any major policy. We haven’t demonstrated that thus far and that’s what that would take too.”
“Is that going to happen in 2020?” Cantwell, who would have to sign off on any bipartisan compromise bill, asked. “I don’t know about that.”
The looming impeachment trial and a distracting presidential election will likely leave privacy legislation at the bottom of most senators’ priority lists.
In the absence of that federal law, California’s tough privacy law – which is set to go into effect on January 1 – will likely become the “de facto” U.S. standard as companies rejigger their systems to comply with the complicated and divisive statute across the country. The California law will become enforceable halfway through the year.
Some tech companies will likely sue California over the law, arguing that it is overly onerous and potentially harmful to smaller businesses that don’t have the resources to comply with complicated privacy regulations. But stakeholders agree: it’s coming, whether companies like it or not, and they could rack up significant legal fees if they don’t comply.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is expected to put out bipartisan legislation with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), said the California law going into effect just ups the stakes for Congress to take action.
“I think especially after California, the tech companies are going to want some uniformity and it should be sooner rather than later,” Blumenthal said. “I’m very hopeful that we will meet this historic test of protecting privacy, which is a real imperative and a growing demand to consumers.”
As the country barrels into a presidential election year, the internet ecosystem is still dangerously vulnerable to political misinformation and viral “fake news,” several years after the U.S. discovered that its social media platforms were successfully manipulated by an army of Russian trolls seeking to sway the election in favor of President Donald Trump.
Disinformation experts say many of the top social media platforms are rife with shady links, misleading memes and political conspiracy theories – and it’s only set to get worse amid a contentious election with over a dozen Democratic candidates and a president who has sowed discord online.
Deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights Paul Barrett said voters should be “on the alert” for disinformation stemming from foreign actors – but “more likely, almost to the point of certainty, from domestic actors” seeking to “confuse people and prop up one candidate… and so forth.”
As recently as this month, a fake story about Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stealing Social Security money to fund the impeachment process went viral, garnering over 4 million shares across a variety of social media platforms, according to analytics website Shared Count.
Fadi Quran, a disinformation researcher with progressive advocacy group Avaaz, told The Hill that the group’s research showed the Pelosi article had received 258,000 shares and 1.38 million interactions during the House impeachment process, underlining the present and pervasive risk of disinformation during divisive political moments.
However, Quran said it’s likely that disinformation in 2020 will be “memes, pictures and videos” rather than the “‘fake news’ links or websites” that dominated the last presidential election. That’s because images laid over with text are harder for the platforms’ artificial intelligence systems to detect, and also because social media use is turning towards images more often.
“Based on everything we’ve seen, [the presidential candidates are] not prepared at all for the onslaught of disinformation that they’re going to face this year,” Quran said.