The Week in Tech: New Decade, Same Old Trouble in Washington

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

WASHINGTON — Big Tech did not get the fresh start it had hoped for in the first full week of the new decade. Debate over political ads, privacy and the market power of the biggest companies were again front and center. And Facebook, the biggest target of criticism, picked up where it left off at the end of last year.

Hi, I’m Cecilia Kang. I write for The New York Times about the tech industry’s often fraught relationship with the regulators and lawmakers of Washington.

Facebook’s tough week kicked off with a Times report on an internal company post by Andrew Bosworth, a senior executive of Facebook and a self-described liberal, who warned against actions that could thwart President Trump in the 2020 election.

The post, obtained by Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac, was a winding, 2,500-word essay in defense of the social network and Mark Zuckerberg’s stance on free expression — including misinformation — in political speech.

The post from Mr. Bosworth, known as Boz and one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s closest lieutenants, didn’t sit well with many employees who had grown uncomfortable with the company’s hands-off approach. Other big social media companies, notably Twitter and Google, have set limits or outrightly banned political ads.

Mr. Bosworth admitted Facebook probably helped elect Mr. Trump. But he said it was not for the reasons critics say. It wasn’t Facebook’s reckless handling of data, which allowed Cambridge Analytica to create psychographic profiles of voters, that did it. It was Facebook’s platform for targeted advertising that was so influential in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump, he said, used that platform better than anyone.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic explained why Mr. Bosworth’s internal post was so divisive in “Why Facebook’s Id is showing.” Mr. Bosworth argued that Facebook did not really need to change. After all, it’s not tobacco, he said. It’s more like sugar — not so bad if you don’t consume too much of it.

The next day, Facebook was caught up in an odd kerfuffle over a glowing article about five Facebook managers charged with defeating disinformation ahead of the 2020 election. The article, oddly, appeared in Teen Vogue without a byline. Why was Teen Vogue publishing an uncritical look at Facebook’s election integrity efforts?

It got weirder. A label was added that tagged the story as “sponsored” editorial. Then the label disappeared. Then the story disappeared.

I dug into the mystery with my colleague Rachel Abrams. The article was, in fact, a piece of paid content. Teen Vogue and Facebook both said the labeling fracas was all a big misunderstanding.

On Thursday, Facebook was back to serious news: It released its policy on political ads, cementing a decision to allow lies by politicians to go unchecked and for campaigns to micro-target those ads to specific audiences.

The reaction was swift and partisan. The Trump campaign lauded the policy and other Republicans said it was an affirmation of free speech. Democrats, including the leading member of the Federal Election Commission, were angry, and said the decision was nothing short of a threat to democracy.

The F.B.I. and Apple have reignited their battle over encryption. As reported by Jack Nicas and Katie Benner, the F.B.I. asked Apple for the data on two iPhones that belonged to the gunman in the shooting last month at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., possibly setting up another showdown over law enforcement’s access to smartphones.

This is an old battle, covered almost three years ago by Katie and Matt Apuzzo, now a European investigative reporter for The Times. At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over user privacy and national security, and we’ll be watching closely how this plays out.

Antitrust enforcement of Big Tech will be a central focus for Washington regulators. And competitors are taking notice. Sonos filed a lawsuit against Google in two federal courts. As reported by Jack Nicas and Daisuke Wakabayashi, the speaker company claims Google stole its secrets and used its market dominance to develop lower-priced speakers to squash competition.

The case has the attention of a congressional committee investigating competition violations by Big Tech. On Jan. 17, the antitrust subcommittee of the House plans to take a road trip to Boulder, Colo., where Patrick Spence, the chief executive of Sonos, is expected testify.

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