Tech Haves and Have-Nots. With millions of people suddenly stuck at home during the pandemic, the stark inequities in internet access were suddenly quite visible.
As Sam Morris reported in September
, the speed of internet access varies widely across the globe and can be remarkably patchy even in wealthy nations. Downloading an hourlong show on Netflix on a cellphone takes just three minutes in Australia but six minutes in the U.S. And for its slower speed, the U.S. plan costs $8 compared with 68 cents for Australia.
Our reporting highlighted the inequalities found within the U.S., where when it comes to access to the speedy home broadband connection necessary to support things like online schooling and work, there are huge disparities. As Emmanuel Martinez reported in March
, the estimated number of Americans without reliable broadband access is as high as 163 million.
Many people turn to libraries for internet access—but libraries were closed because of the pandemic. As Lauren Kirchner reported in June
, librarians around the U.S. got creative, transforming their parking lots and bookmobiles into Wi-Fi hotspots to help people with critical tasks, like filling out online unemployment forms, which can only be done on a computer. (Of course, sadly, many poorly designed online unemployment systems crashed under the weight of applications, as Colin Lecher reported throughout the year
But spotty Wi-Fi in library parking lots wasn’t enough for kids who needed to go online for school. As Colin and Maddy Varner reported in August
regarding one Florida county, attendance fell dramatically in schools with a high proportion of poor and minority students. And by December, as Colin reported
, school districts across the country were finding a huge increase in students receiving failing grades—again, with already disadvantaged students impacted the most.
Pandemic-Proof Profits. Meanwhile, tech companies had a great year. After a brief panic in the spring when online advertising revenues slid, the tech giants more than recovered, posting record revenues and profits this year.
Consider Google, which otherwise had a pretty tough year with multiple antitrust cases filed against it and growing backlash within its own ranks. As Adrianne Jeffries reported this week
, the turmoil didn’t stop Google from pulling in $25 billion in profit in the first nine months of the year.
Content moderation was no more promising at the other big tech companies. In July, Leon and Aaron Sankin reported
that Google was suggesting porn keywords to advertisers who sought to target ads toward people searching for “Black girls” “Latina girls,” and “Asian girls,” but not toward “White girls”—even though years earlier UCLA professor Safiya Noble had published an entire book, “Algorithms of Oppression
,” highlighting the harmful effects of practices like Google’s inclusion of porn in search results for Black girls.
Algorithms Behaving Badly. Meanwhile, outside of Silicon Valley, technology is increasingly being used to determine the course of human lives—with little oversight.
As Lauren reported in May
, landlords are increasingly using software to predict who will be a good tenant—and those reports, often based on sloppy name matches, can wrongly label people deadbeats, criminals, or sex offenders.
And as Aaron and Maddy reported in February
, Allstate has quietly been rolling out an algorithm that allows it to charge higher prices for auto insurance to customers that it judges willing to pay more.
Health care, too, is increasingly being distributed by automated formulas. As Colin reported in March
, budget-strapped states have increasingly turned to algorithms to determine who deserves care. And during the early days of the pandemic in the spring, each state had developed its own formula for who qualified for a COVID-19 test. We filed public records requests
in all 50 states for the testing algorithms.
The trackers that follow us around the internet, gather our data, and feed it to a lot of these algorithms are increasingly hard to avoid
. That’s why Surya Mattu built Blacklight
, a tool that tells you exactly what sorts of trackers have been placed on any website.