By Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne
This past year we’ve addressed some of history’s most important innovations in our Today in Technology blog and video series. Our focus is always on what we can learn from the past and apply to today’s issues.
Today we look back at more recent history – the past twelve months, to be exact. It was a momentous year for technology, with the phrase “Techlash” commonly used to refer not just to one but several issues which gave the public pause about the role of technology and the tech sector in people’s lives. As the calendar turns to 2019, we consider what the last year will likely mean to what will surely be an important New Year. Here’s our list of ten developments to think about.
1. PRIVACY: Privacy protection deepens in Europe and spreads to the United States
When 2018 began, we knew it would be a big year for privacy. The European Union’s impending implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, was enough to make that the case for every company with customers in Europe. Given the GDPR’s technical nature, it’s not surprising that 2019 begins with continuing work to interpret the regulation.
But 2018 also became an eventful privacy year elsewhere, and in some surprising ways. Most notably, a San Francisco real estate developer named Alastair Mactaggart spent more than $3 million of his own money to gather signatures to place a consumer privacy initiative on California’s November ballot. The campaign led to intense negotiations in Sacramento and the adoption of a new and sweeping California Consumer Privacy Act. It’s a welcome development that brings comprehensive privacy protection to one of every eight residents in the United States.
As we begin 2019, California’s new law has led even opponents who long resisted comprehensive privacy legislation in Washington, D.C. to discover something akin to new religion. Rather than face a patchwork of state rules, they’ve started lobbying Congress to adopt a privacy law that will preempt California’s law and other state measures. In effect, Mactaggart has succeeded where many others have failed, including those of us at Microsoft who’ve called for national privacy legislation since 2005. Look to the next few months for the spread of privacy legislation to several other state capitals, all of which will set the stage for an even bigger debate on Capitol Hill.
In Europe itself, the New Year begins with important questions in Brussels about privacy’s future. The continent gave birth to the requirement that companies provide notice and consent before obtaining and using people’s information. In an era of ubiquitous privacy notices, officials question whether privacy law should go farther and regulate even more directly how consumer information can be used.
Ultimately, privacy is a priority that technology can do more to help advance as well. With the issue itself continuing to spread around the world, look for more tech companies to invest in privacy-related innovation. At Microsoft, this now includes a broad range from additional privacy user controls to next-generation AI techniques to train algorithms while data remains encrypted.
2. DISINFORMATION: The controversy roils social media
Last year brought a sea change in the U.S. and Europe to our understanding of the impact of nation-state disinformation campaigns on major social media platforms. December brought the most definitive assessment yet, with a report sponsored by the Senate Intelligence Committee using data provided under subpoena by the major platforms. Among other things, it showed that between 2015 and 2017, more than 30 million users shared state-sponsored Facebook and Instagram posts with their family and friends, liking, reacting to, and commenting on them along the way.
The big question now is what will be done to address the problem. The old year ended with new action in Brussels to protect upcoming elections for the European Parliament, including an industry code and rapid response plans. The major social media platforms have started implementing new protections more broadly, and other important voluntary initiatives like NewsGuard have emerged.
Last year also brought a broadening acceptance by tech leaders of the need for some regulation. But what type of regulation? Senator Mark Warner from Virginia has defined much of the early agenda, based in part on a white paper he published last August. The paper outlines proposals to impose a duty on social media platforms to determine the origin of accounts or posts, identify bogus accounts and notify users when bots are spreading information. Warner has played a steady leadership role on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the coming months will likely put added spotlight on these ideas.
3. PROTECTIONISM IN THE PACIFIC: Tech comes between the United States and China
Last January feels more than twelve months distant when it comes to the economic relationship between the U.S. and China. Last year saw a steady wave of U.S. tariff increases on Chinese imports, aimed at encouraging more Chinese purchases of American products. But not necessarily technology.
In Washington, D.C. the political winds for technology trade have clearly shifted. Across the American political spectrum there is greater appreciation of China’s momentum in artificial intelligence and other technology and heightened concern about its economic and national security implications. Last year concluded with events that felt like part of a recent Netflix drama – the arrest and proposed extradition of a leading Chinese tech executive and action in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and UK to restrict the use of Chinese components in 5G networks. The New Year will see an extended debate on potential new U.S. export controls on artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. The EU is considering limiting foreign acquisitions of local tech start-ups. The tech sector could be in for a bumpy ride.
4. DIGITAL DIPLOMACY: Multi-stakeholder efforts start addressing cyberattacks
While 2017 saw two of the world’s most visible state-sponsored cyberattacks – WannaCry and NotPetya – 2018 brought some important changes. Nation-state attacks continued and involved even more governments but were sometimes less visible. Some attacks involved the theft of massive amounts of information, while others threatened IT and other critical infrastructure. The year offered no reason to believe state cyberthreats are on the decline.
But 2018 also brought new steps to strengthen cybersecurity protection. The tech sector continues to prioritize cybersecurity innovation and investments. The past year brought more focus on securing hardware from the chip level on up, but new customer features to protect vital cloud services also remained a priority. One of the broader innovations came from Microsoft itself, where our Azure Sphere initiative aims to build next-generation security across the entire ecosystem of billions of microcontroller devices. We’re coupling this with continuing additions to our operational security work, including the AccountGuard program to strengthen threat intelligence for political campaigns.
It was also an important year for advances on the diplomatic front. The White House helped in February, when it presented public attribution regarding NotPetya. Soon six other governments – the UK, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, Canada and Australia – followed.
Digital diplomacy then spread to the tech sector. Siemens led the work to create an important Charter of Trust, uniting companies to protect the ubiquitous devices that make up the Internet of Things. Microsoft spearheaded a Tech Accord, which launched in April. By the end of the year, 68 companies had joined forces under the Tech Accord to strengthen cybersecurity defenses.
The year’s biggest step came in November. The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, led by French President Emanuel Macron, launched an important appeal to deter indiscriminate cyberattacks and protect electoral processes. It’s based on multi-stakeholder action, garnering more than 450 signatories from more than 50 governments and roughly 400 companies and civil society groups.
The Paris Call exposed, however, some of the unfinished business for 2019. Its signatories included every EU member and 27 of the 29 NATO allies, but not the United States. The New Year brings a new opportunity to bring everyone together.
5. ETHICS CHALLENGES FOR AI: New controversies abound amidst employee activism
Last January, ethical issues for artificial intelligence were beginning to attract attention. As the months progressed, they exploded. Driven in part by employee activism, tech companies began to address issues like AI for the military and concerns around facial recognition. Employee pressure led Google to step away from a U.S. defense AI program, while Amazon and Microsoft both pledged continuing involvement. At Microsoft we coupled this with a commitment to play a proactive role in addressing the ethical dimensions that require public policy attention.
As spring turned to summer, the facial recognition issues took center stage, driven in part by concerns by academics and civil liberties groups about risks of discrimination and the potential impact on privacy and other democratic rights. In July, Microsoft called for regulation of the new technology, and in December we shared specific ideas for new laws as well as principles we’ll implement for our own facial recognition services. The early months of 2019 will see the legislative focus in the U.S. shift to state capitals, with the issue likely to move to Washington, D.C. before the year ends. In the EU, authorities are monitoring facial recognition and other biometric techniques under the GDPR, and the European Commission has started reviewing the ethical issues more broadly. Globally, this is an issue that’s just getting started.
6. AI AND THE ECONOMY: Concerns spread about AI and jobs
The past year the public’s angst over AI’s impact on the economy and jobs continued to grow. Especially in the United States and Europe, people questioned whether technology will destroy more jobs than it will create. More pointedly, discussions started to focus on who the likely winners and losers will be.
While of huge importance, these concerns were not shared universally around the world. In nations like Japan and South Korea, where populations are starting to decline, there emerged a new recognition that continuing economic prosperity will require productivity advances from technology to replace a declining supply of human workers. For countries like these, which will grow in number, AI offers a new solution to a societal problem.
The year ahead will bring more attention to new programs from both the public and private sectors to equip people with the skills they’ll need. Look to a nation like Singapore, non-profit groups and the tech sector itself to provide some of the building blocks that an AI-enabled future will require.
7. THE PEOPLE SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY: Immigration and diversity remain front and center
Immigration and diversity issues remained top of mind across the tech sector in 2018. The year had its dramatic moments, including a worldwide employee walk-out at Google based on concerns regarding treatment for women and employee activism at Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon regarding technology for U.S. immigration authorities.
Much of the year involved other aspects that were less dramatic but no less important. Tech companies talked more and worked to do more to diversify their employee ranks. Many companies reported diversity gains that were small but moving in the right direction more broadly than in the past. Some companies broadened employee benefits as well, with Microsoft reaching beyond its employee ranks to require that U.S. suppliers also provide 12 weeks of paid parental leave. As the year ended, most would agree that the industry has a lot more progress ahead of it than behind it.
The year also saw the tech sector continue to focus on several key immigration issues. One is the per-country limit for green cards that has created a shortage for certain national groups that play critical technology roles. It requires Congressional action, and as 2018 ended there was hope that when a budget deal comes together, it might finally address this need.
Another is the plight of the Dreamers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Microsoft is a plaintiff in one of the key lawsuits, in partnership with Princeton University, as cases slowly move towards the Supreme Court. Like a ticking clock, everyone wonders whether Congress will act before the Court.
8. RURAL BROADBAND: Some progress amidst problems
In the United States and several other countries, 2018 brought a continuing focus on challenges for rural communities. Slower rural growth and higher unemployment often contributes to an even larger political divide. One factor holding back rural communities is the lack of access to broadband services. In increasing ways broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century. Without it, there is little opportunity to attract new business or jobs.
In the United States, officials finally started to appreciate that our understanding of the problem is too limited. Microsoft joined with members of Congress to point out that the Federal Communications Commission’s data is flawed, as it underestimates markedly the size of the country’s problem.
Despite the data issues, there were some important new signs of progress in expanding broadband access. Combining new TV White Spaces technology with existing wireless solutions, at Microsoft we launched partnerships with telecommunications companies to bring rural broadband access to 16 states in 17 months. These partnerships will reach a million people who haven’t yet had the opportunity to enjoy the connectivity speeds that most Americans living in cities take for granted.
These solutions provide new hope not just for the United States and 2019, but for closing the broadband gap globally over the next decade. It will require sustained innovations and investments, coupled with sound government policies. But it’s increasingly possible to imagine the type of progress that will make the world a different and better place in this regard by 2030.
9. SOVEREIGNTY, HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE CLOUD: Protecting people in a data-driven world
When this decade began, there were some who thought the tech sector could serve the world exclusively from datacenters located in the United States. As the start of the next decade nears, more governments want their public sector or even their entire country’s data housed in a datacenter within their own borders. It’s creating increasingly complicated issues for the world.
At one level, it’s understandable that governments are focused on what they see as a matter of national sovereignty. But the technology constraints are considerable, given the cloud’s global architecture. And once a local datacenter is constructed, the citizenry’s most personal information can be stored within. This raises profound questions about when a government or a tech company can access personal data and how the information can be used. There are growing implications for fundamental human rights.
10. TECH GROWTH AND COMMUNITIES: What’s good for tech companies can challenge a community
The past year saw increasing public attention on the tech sector’s impact on local communities. It’s generating opposing views, both of which are grounded in important realities.
On the one hand, tech growth creates new and well-paying jobs that contribute to local economic growth. The competition to attract Amazon’s HQ2 shined the spotlight on this dimension more than ever.
But on the other hand, rapid growth creates new strains for a community’s infrastructure, including its schools and transportation network. As 2018 ended, there was some well-deserved focus on another aspect – the affordability of housing.
When the housing supply fails to keep pace with added population, housing prices rise, and some people are pushed out. There is growing awareness that this contributes to growing homelessness, as well as up to daily four-hour commutes in key U.S. cities for teachers, nurses, first responders and many other middle-income individuals who play vital community roles. For example, since 2011, as the greater Seattle area has evolved from the Emerald City to Cloud City, median home prices have increased by more than 80 percent while median household income has risen by only 30 percent. Other tech centers confront similar trends. A New Year brings the opportunity to focus on this growing challenge.