The pandemic hung over the year like a dark cloud, forcing billions of people into national lockdowns, leading to 1.8 million deaths (as of the last count), and despite the rollout of a vaccine, the global economy is in a recession the effects of which will likely linger for years.
The tech world also wasn't immune to the pandemic.
With people forced to work from home, digital services offered up by the likes of Facebook and Amazon became quasi-public utilities, and a fast broadband connection went from a luxury to a basic necessity. The world was introduced to Zoombombing. Google and Apple outflanked governments to impose their own standards on how coronavirus apps should track people's exposure to the virus. Tech giants' new powers are unlikely to subside once COVID-19 is a distant memory.
Weirdly, as Big Tech got bigger, skepticism toward the industry and its place in the world grew like never before.
The United States caught up with Europe on the antitrust front, with federal and state officials filing a litany of lawsuits against Google and Facebook's alleged bad behavior. The companies deny any wrongdoing. Online falsehoods — on everything from the QAnon conspiracy theory to the pandemic and the U.S. presidential election — ran rife, despite social media companies policing their users as if this was George Orwell's 1984.
Europe, still the trendsetter on digital rulemaking in the West, published a suite of proposals aimed at boosting online competition and clamping down on harmful digital material. The bloc also flirted with protectionism and new taxes aimed at Silicon Valley, which may escalate already-fraught global trade relations.
Here are four trends that you should keep an eye out for in 2021:
The coronavirus hit the tech world like it did everything else, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Big Tech consolidated more control over digital industry, with their financial muscle and real-world clout only growing amid skyrocketing unemployment figures and many brick-and-mortar shops struggling to make ends meet as a result of nationwide lockdowns.
Still, the likes of Amazon and Deliveroo, the food-service app, have helped traditional businesses quickly change tack and embrace the online world in ways that many had not done so before. More businesses now provide their services online; it's now normal to get groceries or meals from a local restaurant delivered via a few swipes on a smartphone. This digital overhaul will not go away even if it means such services will be reliant on Big Tech online ecosystems for survival.
But the ever-growing dominance of a small number of (primarily Silicon Valley) companies will make them even more of a target, as governments start hunting for new tax revenues to bolster economies hard-hit by more than a year of sluggish growth. Already, some countries have lined up digital taxes to force tech firms to cough up more cash for national recoveries. Antitrust authorities similarly question if the pandemic worsened the existing trend of tech giants gobbling up vast parts of the economy.
Misinformation was already a part of everyone's daily lives. But the COVID-19 crisis took that trend and made it lethal.
No longer are online falsehoods primarily directed at elections and other high-profile events. Instead, they can have a life-or-death impact, particularly as countries start to roll out coronavirus vaccines. A vocal minority has already said it will refuse to take it — even if it's proven to be 100 percent safe.
This whack-a-mole of vaccine disinformation will dominate online conversations, mixing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, anti-government rhetoric and more extreme movements like QAnon into a lethal cocktail that social media companies will find hard, if not impossible, to corral.
In 2020, online tricksters relied on partisan digital news outlets and social media influencers to peddle falsehoods to mass online audiences. But as the COVID-19 vaccine went from hope to reality, anti-vaccine groups have started to push anecdotal stories about people's alleged averse reactions as evidence that you and I should not take the vaccine. Such "evidence" — based on first-person accounts — is almost impossible to debunk, leaving social media companies and their army of outsourced fact-checkers at a loss for how to handle problematic content that, technically, does not fall afoul of firms' COVID-19 rules.
This entrenched misinformation threat should not be underestimated. For life to go back to normal in 2021 and beyond, a majority of people need to get vaccinated — something that won't happen if COVID-19 conspiracy theories continue to circulate rapidly online.
That's the $64,000 question many inside and outside of the U.S. are asking, particularly officials in Brussels keen to create a transatlantic pact on everything from global cybersecurity rules to how online content should be policed. Whichever way the incoming president goes, it will prove divisive.
So far, the Biden camp has been tight-lipped on digital policymaking, mostly because the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and a flailing U.S. economy are higher up on its agenda.
On some fronts, like antitrust lawsuits, federal officials have been given extra funding and are likely to press ahead with charges against Big Tech's alleged abuses. The recent cyberattack against multiple U.S. government agencies, reportedly perpetrated by the Russian government, will also refocus minds in Washington on the country's cyber defenses.
But on others — online content rules, federal privacy legislation and digital taxes, to name a few — the jury is most definitely out. For his administration, Biden has tapped some senior officials with track records of pushing for data protection and digital content overhauls. But a polarized Congress and COVID-19-fueled recession may push digital rulemaking onto the back burner.
Big Tech firms have so far largely stuck together to provide a (digital) wall against those who want the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to be taken down a peg or two.
But that bonhomie is now over. With regulatory headaches sprouting up around the world, tensions between the giants have spilled over in the guise of hard-nosed lobbying, retaliatory lawsuits and wars of words that will continue through 2021.
Apple is fighting a vocal battle against Facebook over the social media company's use of people's data. Facebook, in return, is actively pushing competition authorities to go after the iPhone maker.
Google similarly is hiding behind Facebook's poor track record on tackling disinformation to paper over the search giant's own issues in curbing such false content on YouTube. Big Tech lobbyists have thrown Amazon under the bus for not paying its fair share in national taxes.
This friendly fire will reshape alliances in 2021, with companies shifting allegiances depending on the policy area in a never-ending game of regulatory musical chairs. It will pit well-financed lobbying operations against one another as companies vie for influence and undermine competitors in a bid to keep the authorities focused away from their own shortcomings.
Will that dent Silicon Valley's control over the online world? Probably not. But it will force policymakers to reassess their one-size-fits-all approach to Big Tech.