SAN FRANCISCO — Each week, technology reporters and columnists from The New York Times review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.
Hi, I’m Sheera Frenkel, your friendly cybersecurity reporter.
I’m writing from a sunny and glorious San Francisco while the world’s elite share deep thoughts in snowy Davos, Switzerland, at an annual gathering of the rich and powerful.
Executives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple wined and dined with the elected officials and regulators who are responsible for holding their companies to account. A lot is at stake. The European Union is looking to enforce its new privacy regulations, and in the United States the Federal Trade Commission is expected to round out its investigation of Facebook within the next month or so.
Other countries are also exploring regulation. Our colleagues at Davos reported that on Wednesday leaders of Japan, South Africa, China and Germany issued a call for global oversight of the tech sector.
In the next year, important elections will be held in countries including India, Indonesia, Ukraine and Israel. Everyone will be watching to see whether social media is rife with false news and disinformation, and the tech companies will have a chance to show that they’ve changed for the better.
If the last week was any indication, things aren’t looking great.
Everyone was reminded of the power of social media to divide when a video showing a confrontation in Washington between a group of high school students and a Native American protester went viral.
The minute-long video, which was first posted by a Twitter account called @2020fight, initially inspired outrage among liberal groups that believed the students were intimidating and mocking the protester.
But within two days, another version of the video, which showed the protester intentionally walking into the group of students, had appeared. Conservative groups took to Twitter to claim that the students, not the protester, were the victims. They called on celebrities and prominent journalists to apologize to the students, and a group of lawyers announced that it would sue popular figures who had tweeted defamatory statements about the incident.
Days later, people were still fighting about the video on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the cable networks. The account that started it all — along with many that helped amplify it — remains anonymous.
My colleague Kate Conger and I reported Wednesday that lawmakers were asking Twitter for more information about the accounts. There is concern that the accounts that amplified the tweet (read: Russian) and looking to stir discord among Americans. Twitter said it was investigating. So far, it appears that at least the original poster, @2020fight, is American.
The account was suspended by Twitter. But what, at least under Twitter rules, did it do wrong? Many people on Twitter use fake names; many more use fake photos. Neither practice is explicitly against Twitter’s rules, and in many ways the account used Twitter for exactly what the platform was designed to do — to make something go viral.
There’s a question of whether that is good for any of us, or whether, as my colleague Farhad Manjoo succinctly put it in his column this past week, the answer is to “Never Tweet.”
■ Twitter wasn’t the only company to have a bad week. French regulators announced that they had fined Google 50 million euros, or about $57 million, for not properly disclosing how it collected data about its users across its services. Adam Satariano wrote that it was the largest penalty of its kind levied by the European Union, which last year adopted a sweeping new data privacy law known as the General Data Protection Regulation.
■ In Australia, a sweeping new law gives local law enforcement authorities the power to compel tech companies like Apple to create tools, known as back doors, that would circumvent the encryption they built into their products.
My colleague Nellie Bowles reported that the law’s impact could be felt globally. If Apple were to build a back door for iPhones, law enforcement in other countries, including the United States, could ask to use the same tool.
The debate about back doors to encryption has been raging for years. Tech companies argue that they encrypt devices to protect users. The police say they need access to devices, especially phones, to do their jobs.
■ In other news about our dystopian future, Cade Metz wrote about start-ups that are turning high-altitude surveillance into a lucrative business. Using cameras, sensors and inexpensive satellites, the companies are selling insights gleaned from those devices to hedge funds, banks and other market traders looking for an edge.
■ Karen Weise wrote about how Amazon is building a huge business out of knowing everything you buy. Amazon doesn’t just know what you buy. It knows how often you buy it, where you ship it to and what you are most likely to buy next. Ads sold by Amazon are now a major part of its business, and it is quickly gaining ground on the industry leaders, Google and Facebook.
■ A couple of days later, Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill wrote an illuminating first-person account of her struggles to remove Amazon from her home. The article brought into sharp relief just how dominant Amazon is in our lives, and how hard it would be to live without the technology we have invited into our homes.