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The (Tech) Year in Review

Dispatches from Editor-in-Chief Julia Angwin
This Week
Hello, friends, 
The year 2020 defies easy description. How to even recount the global pandemic, the world screeching to a sudden halt, the unstoppable body count, the soaring unemployment rolls, the police attacking protesters seeking racial justice, the nail-biting U.S. presidential election, and the heartbreaking lines at food banks? 
This was also the year that we confronted just how much technology mediates our world. Technology is how we replaced much of our in-person life: with Zoom-enabled work, school, dates and even court hearings.
Looking back over our coverage from the year, I noticed a few themes that emerged from our reporting. Here are some of the recurring issues that cropped up in a year filled with dramatic news events:
Source: Matt Chase, Sam Morris, and John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Source: Matt Chase, Sam Morris, and John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
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. 
One reason the gatekeepers are printing money is that they can use their power to steer business to themselves. As Dana Mattioli reported in The Wall Street Journal in April, Amazon used data from its sellers to launch competing products, contrary to its own policies. And as Adrianne and Leon Yin reported in July, Google often places its own products in the coveted space at the top of search results. 
Meanwhile, the tech giants keep costs low by not investing in policing content on their platforms. As Annie Gilbertson and Jon Keegan reported in June, Amazon’s enforcement of its own list of banned products is so lax that they found nearly 100 banned listings for drugs, weapons, theft and spying products, and other dangerous items. And a few months after that story ran, Annie and Jon found that Amazon was still selling injectable performance-enhancing drugs, even though the reporting duo had brought the presence of listings for those drugs to the company’s attention in June.
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. 
And as Aaron reported in April, Facebook allowed advertisers to target 78 million people that it had identified as interested in “pseudoscience”—until we brought it to the company’s attention. This month, Aaron found that Facebook was still allowing Holocaust denial content, despite its internal ban. And last month, Jeremy B. Merrill found QAnon conspiracy content slipping through Facebook’s ban.
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.
Given this backdrop, it’s perhaps no surprise that the end of the year has seen a flurry of regulatory actions against the tech giants. Facebook is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission and almost every state for buying companies that threatened its dominance. Google is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice and two separate coalitions of state attorneys general. Congress and the European Union have also both proposed new rules to curtail the tech giants’ power. 
It will be interesting to see how the regulatory backlash evolves next year. In the meantime, I’ll be taking a break and returning to your inboxes on Jan. 9. All of us at Team Markup wish you a wonderful holiday season!
Best,
Julia Angwin
Editor-in-Chief
The Markup
P.S. Remember our “Scraping Is not a Crime” T-shirts that we wore last month to highlight an important U.S. Supreme Court case? So many people wanted them that we are now selling them on our website: https://themarkup.org/shirt
For those who have been waiting for a shirt, thank you for your patience. We had to pay the privacy tax and build a privacy-protecting e-commerce solution before posting the shirts for sale.
 
From The Markup
 
Google’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Yet Still Extremely Profitable 2020
Algorithms Behaving Badly: 2020 Edition
Blacklight
Introducing Simple Search
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