2019: Highlights and lowlights for the tech sector

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2019 has seen technology and big name tech firms dominate news headlines, amid privacy concerns, digital tax and national security issues

The past 12 months has provided some momentous challenges for the IT sector, as technology increasingly becomes a vital element in people’s daily lives.

Indeed, 2019 has seen some notable developments including the use of national security and Chinese firms such as Huawei as something of a political pawn amid the trade dispute between the United States and Beijing.

Other developments in 2019 include the increasing recognition of privacy and data protection, as well as the deployment of the first 5G networks in the UK. There is also increasing regulatory scrutiny of the way tech firms operate in both of terms of the tax they pay locally, and the power of their platforms to disrupt political elections.

Image credit: US Senate

Tech and politics

This article examines the tech highlights in 2019 and rounds up some (but not all) of the most notable incidents and developments.

One of the biggest ongoing issues for the tech sector has centred around Chinese networking giant Huawei Technologies.

The United States has waged a consistent war against the firm, accusing its 5G equipment of presenting an unacceptable security risk for its allies.

Huawei

Huawei for its part has consistently denied the US claims.

Last December Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on behalf of the US on alleged sanction busting charges. The legal challenge is still ongoing.

And in May US President Donald Trump signed an executive order that placed Chinese firms including Huawei on an export ban for US goods.

Whatever the merits (or not) of the US position, this debate is likely to continue into 2020 as more and more countries deploy their 5G networks.

Another tech issue that has become a political football is the issue of a digital (or tech) tax on big name tech firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google etc.

France implemented a tech tax at the start of 20019, much to the chagrin of President Trump. Other nations, including the UK, are likely to follow suit in 2020.

Tech firms are also facing increasing regulatory scrutiny – but not so much from Europe (that was mostly done in 2018), but from US watchdogs.

In June the US Congress announced it would investigate big name tech firms over anti-competitive behaviour.

Google, Amazon and Facebook have been grilled by US Senate over antitrust issues over the course of this year, and the US Justice Department has opened a broad antitrust review into Facebook, Alphabet’s Google, Amazon and Apple.

Facebook

Facebook has continued to feel the political heat in 2019, and has agreed to pay a record $5bn penalty in the US for mishandling user data in the Cambridge Analytica breach.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook's Parse Developer Day, 2013. Credit: Facebook

But the social network continues to face criticism over its stance on political advertising. Twitter has banned political adverts, whilst Google now prevents political advertisers from targetting voters based on their political affiliations.

Facebook for its part in October quietly revised its policy banning false claims in advertising to exclude politicians – a move that drew fierce criticism from users, watchdogs, and politicians.

Indeed, Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this year grilled Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, over the policy change in a congressional hearing in October. “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of factchecking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez asked, as Zuckerberg struggled to answer. “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?”

Privacy has also become a major concern in the United States, mirroring similar movements by European users during 2017 and 2018.

There is also regulatory concern over Zuckerberg’s desire (expressed in January 2019) to merge the behind-the-scenes tech of messaging on WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

Notable departures

But there have been a host of other, more non- political focused issues that the tech industry has experienced in 2019.

Early December saw an end of an era at Google, after its two co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, announced they were stepping down from leadership roles at the firm.

The management shakeup at Google came shortly after another significant shakeup at fellow tech giant Apple, when chief designer Sir Jony Ive officially exited the iPad maker.

Telsa’s Elon Musk narrowly avoided what could have been an expensive financial penalities after he won a defamation lawsuit filed by British cave diver Vernon Unsworth, brought because of Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet.

In the summer Musk also outlined plans to connect human brains directly to computers, using a tiny chip implanted in human brains, despite his well known caution about artificial intelligence.

And in November Musk bounced back from an embarrassing launch gaffe, when the bullet proof window of the newly launched Cybertruck electric vehicle shattered during a life deomstration. Despite that, the firm said it has received 200,000 orders for the futurist looking pick up truck.

cybertruck, tesla
Tesla

Samsung meanwhile had to deal with fall out over its Galaxy Fold device, after early reviewers noticed problems with the folding screen.

Samsung’s DJ Koh at the launch even for the Galxy Fold and Galaxy S10. Image credit: Samsung

Security woes

Other developments in 2019 saw Prince Harry attracting a lot of feedback for suggesting that the hugely popular Fortnite computer game should be banned.

Parents also got themselves worked up over the false reports that Momo was tricking youngsters into life threatening challenges.

On the security side 2019 was another depressing year, with ransomware firmly establishing itself as the scourge of modern day IT networks.

Matters were not helped after a number of establishments, including cities and towns, opted to pay the hackers when ransomware crippled their IT systems.

Another security issue emerged in May 2019, when WhatsApp confirmed that a vulnerability in its app had been exploited to install surveillance software on victims’ phones. NSO Group is at the centre of this scare, and the legal ramifications are still ongoing.

Apple, Cloud, Internet

And the supposedly tougher security of Apple devices was dented in August, when Google revealed that hackers were using booby-trapped websites to exploit previously unidentified flaws in iOS, potentially affecting “thousands of visitors per week”.

Speaking of Apple, the iPad maker in September released the iPhone 11 portfolio that delivered more cameras, longer-lasting batteries and a new “pro” name for the top-of-the-range models. But sadly no 5G.

Other developments saw the arrival of Apple’s noise cancelling Airpods, with the AirPod Pro.

The cloud sector witnessed an almighty surprise in October when Microsoft Azure won the valuable JEDI cloud contract from the Pentagon.

Azure’s shock win over Amazon AWS has triggered complaints that President Trump interfered in the contract award, but if the decision stands, it could see Microsoft increasing the pressure Amazon for the cloud crown in the years ahead.

Finally, on the internet side one of the most developments has been Russia’s efforts to isolate itself online with the creation of “sovereign internet“, which it reportedly successfully tested this month.

In conclusion, 2019 contained many tech developments, but what do you think?

Did we miss any significant events and developments? Please comment below.

So goodbye 2019, its been a blast. Happy new year everyone.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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