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2021: A Year of Big Change for the Big Tech World

The tech industry, even more so than others, is built on mandated year-on-year change. Every succeeding year’s iPhones have to be a little bit better. Every App-Store update is expected to bring fresh improvements. YouTube, Instagram and Facebook refresh constantly; there’s nothing worse for selling ads than old content.

But 2021 heralds a different kind of change for tech — bringing a whole new set of hardware, and reforms to the laws tech companies are built on. Whether it be changes to Section 230 — “the foundational law of the internet” — or widespread adoption of new form-factors, there’s every reason to expect the tech world to look a lot, lot different by 2022.

The law

Both the platforms and laws the make up the internet as we know it are under legal threat in 2021.

Termed by many as the “foundational law of the internet,” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is under serious political and legal scrutiny. In 2021, there is a real chance the law could be repealed entirely, if not reformed significantly.

Passed in 1996 in a bipartisan move by one Democratic and one Republican senator, the law states that an “interactive computer service” is not the legal “publisher” of third-party comments and content posted onto the site. This platform-not-publisher status means social media sites are protected from traditional libel law, or legal action if users post illegal content, with some exceptions.

“Facebook growth” by niallkennedy is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The law is crucial to the modern internet as it provides the legal basis for social media networks like Facebook or Twitter to allow users to freely upload content on their sites, without oversight before every post.

Conservatives argue that it allows liberal-leaning companies to unjustly censor right-wing voices. Liberals argue that it gives platforms too much leeway to allow misinformation or hate speech to spread.

Both of these viewpoints misunderstand the law.

Though issues of free-speech and Section 230 protections are often tagged in together, they are separate issues. Section 230 simply protects companies from being legally liable for users’ content, while laws such as the First Amendment prevent the Government from infringing on citizens’ free speech. Private companies like Twitter can moderate as they please; this is their First Amendment right also. In the US hate speech is not illegal, so it is not within Section 230’s remit.

A full repeal of the law might, however, open Facebook up for legal action if it leaves up defamatory posts by the US President, for example. In this way, it could force platforms to moderate more decisively and frequently. But this wouldn’t just affect big firms like Facebook or Twitter.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the law “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

As an editor of Ars Technica writes, small media firms like theirs would be forced to simply turn off comment sections lest they run the risk of — without the resources for moderation — legally-infringing content being posted by users. “I’ll tell you what would happen at Ars if you got your wish,” they write in response to one commenter calling for platforms to lose their legal immunity. “We’d turn off comments and close the forum … given the option between having to leave up whatever garbage people spew with our hands tied or face lawsuits we’d just close any ability for users to post.”

Twitter” by chriscorneschi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What’s clear, though, is that if Section 230 had not been passed in 1996, the internet as we know it would not exist. Despite this, both Biden and Trump have to varying degrees criticized the law — indeed, both have put out calls for it to be repealed entirely.

Democratic and Republican legislators tend to favor the reform approach. One of the most popular suggestions is building more exceptions into the law. This has been done before: In April 2018, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA was signed into law. The law states that Section 230 protections no longer apply to sites that host content that faces charges of sex trafficking or that promotes or facilitates prostitution. More exceptions could be carved-out into the law to remove protections in cases of sex abuse, for example.

Other approaches include tying protections to platforms fulfilling certain obligations. Senator Josh Hawley introduced legislation in 2019 that would require large social platforms to be “politically neutral” in order to earn Section 230 protections. This law would likely violate First Amendment laws around the Government infringing on a platform’s right to moderate “politically.” Other approaches in the same vein include a proposal by two academics to limit Section 230 protections only to platforms that take “reasonable steps to prevent or address unlawful uses of its services.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the law “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

Current standing legislative approaches to changing the law include an executive order signed by president Trump in May 2020, and Republican attempts to bundle the deal with $2000 stimulus checks. Whether president-elect Biden will follow through on his similar claims this year is unclear, but there is a real possibility the law won’t exist in its current form by 2022.

“Sen. Ron Wyden” by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The giants

Debates about harm proliferated by tech companies won’t stop at Section 230 in 2021, though. Issues of rampant misinformation that leads to building political polarization, or social mistrust are real, but exist outside communications law.

Ideas to tackle these issues include holding companies to account on posts that their algorithms drive to virality; false posts could be slowed, like Twitter did over the election, adding “friction” between users seeing a post and retweeting it.

Some argue that the problem is not the law but these companies’ business models. Built around keeping users on their platforms as long as possible, social media networks algorithmically sort posts to tailor them to the individual; sifting up, with frequency, inflammatory content — as it best captures users’ attention. In other words, the problem is not that misinformation can be posted, but that the platforms themselves actively amplify this misinformation. Reports of Facebook employees being turned down for asking that the US election-era News Feed the company implemented to push down misinformation and push up authoritative news be adopted indefinitely support this.

There’s every reason to expect the tech world to look a lot, lot different by 2022.

Laws that require companies to provide, like Twitter, a non-algorithmically sorted timeline are also suggested, or legislation that forces companies to be more transparent about the fringe-content bias in their recommendations algorithms.

Additionally, firms that characterized the nature of the internet are under growing — and remarkably new — government antitrust pressure. The US Justice Department in October last year sued Google over multiple breeches of antitrust law. Alleging, as the Washington Post summed up, that “Google wielded its digital dominance to the detriment of corporate rivals and consumers. The complaint contends that Google relied on a mix of special agreements and other problematic business practices to secure an insurmountable lead in online search, capturing the market for nearly 90 percent of all queries in the United States.” In a separate case filed by 25 Attorneys General, Google was accused of using anti-competitive behavior to preserve its search monopoly. That same month, Forty-eight Attorneys General across 46 states filed a antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, finishing off a years-long investigation into anti-competitive behaviors by the other tech giant.

Whatever the results of all these new legislative pushes, this is a whole new kind of political discourse, finally dealing with legislating the digital world we live in.

“ARM Processor” by Fr3d.org is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hardware shake-ups

It’s going to be a big year of change for the physical stuff of tech too; the laptops, the phones, and the rest of the gadgets that enjoy ubiquity in our lives.

Since the iPhone was launched in 2007, mobile phones have shared, by and large, a single, candy-bar-style form factor. Rectangular, rigid, with a screen on the front and a camera on the back, this form factor has gotten thinner but remained unchallenged. In 2021, this could all change.

The folding glass-front phone was certainly a thing in 2020. The Samsung Z Flip received rave reviews, and the Microsoft Duo was praised for its ingenuity, if not its polished soft-ware experience, which left a lot to be desired. But 2020 iterations of the folding phone all had one thing in common: a consumer-unfriendly price. The Surface Duo, for example, went on sale for $1,399.99 USD, while the Galaxy Fold goes for $1,949.99 USD.

Is 2021 the year the folding phone finally catches on? Tech YouTuber and expert Marques Brownlee seems to hope so. “I’m ready for the third generation of these foldables to be the one that lowers the price,” he said in a recent video. “We had the first gen where the tech is proof of concept, we had the second gen with all sorts of refinements and learnings from the first gen, and I’m hoping third gen: price drop.”

The tech hardware orthodox in another area also looks set to change for good next year: computer processors. The “ARM” computer chip architecture, which is used in mobile phones thanks to its temperature management and efficiency, finally found a successful iteration in a laptop late last year with the launch of Apple’s new “M1” MacBooks. The MacBooks ditched Intel processors for Apple’s own proprietary “Apple Silicon” chips, which are not only faster than their traditional counterparts but more energy efficient, holding both breakneck rendering speeds but also 20-hour-long battery life.

“Apple’s first M1 MacBooks are here, and the world of laptops has changed overnight,” the Verge writer Chaim Gartenberg wrote. Gartenberg noted the “first-gen” nature of Apple’s technology, but, echoing the words of many reviewers, underlined the promise the chips hold to up-end the computing industry. “…when a $1,000 M1 laptop can outdo a maxed-out, $6,000 MacBook Pro with quadruple the RAM and Intel’s best chip, while also running cooler and quieter in a smaller and lighter form factor and with twice the battery life, where do competitors even go from here?” He wrote.

So. Whole new phone form factors making it big. A different class of laptops. And all to run a drastically changed internet; free of its most central law, with its most iconic companies broken up. Mounting citizen and government pressure to address the social ills of online bullying and online radicalism, polarization and hate speech. People ditching social media on mass. This is a very possible vision of tech in 2021. All we have to ask is: is it the vision we want?

Featured image via Spencer E Holtaway is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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