Why 2018 will be remembered as a turning point for tech

Why 2018 will be remembered as a turning point for tech
Why 2018 will be remembered as a turning point for tech

2018 will be remembered as the year some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies were held accountable for their actions and forced evaluate how they treat their staff and users – and the implications of their power.

In March it came to light that the personal details of more than 80m Facebook users had been harvested by British consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica and used to create targeted political advertising. Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of the social network, testified to US Congress and European Parliament over the data scandal, but has ignored repeated requests to appear before the UK Parliament’s DCMS committee.

The arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May ushered in sweeping reform over how organisations collect and retain personal data, wielding the power to fine offenders up to 4 per cent of their global revenue (or €20m, whichever is higher). While Facebook was fined £500,000 by the ICO for its failure to protect user data by the ICO – the maximum penalty under pre-GDPR regulations – the honour of the first significant GDPR fine may belong to hotel group Marriott, which left the details of more than half a billion users exposed.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 27: A protester wearing a model head of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poses for media outside Portcullis House on November 27, 2018 in London, England. Facebook Vice President Richard Allan appears in front over the Commons culture committee today as part of its fake news inquiry. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
A protester wearing a model head of Facebook chief exec Mark Zuckerberg poses for media outside Portcullis House on November 27, 2018 in London (Photo: Getty)

To add to Facebook’s woes, the company was hacked in September, when attackers were able to gain access to around 30m accounts, and it has been heavily criticised after admitting it hired a PR firm to attack billionnaire George Soros, who has described both Facebook and Google as a “menace to society.”

Google had a similarly tumultuous year. The search giant was rocked by accusations of sexism and a toxic working environment following reports it paid an executive tens of millions of dollars after he was let go over a sexual misconduct investigation. The company is also under pressure after details emerged it was creating a censored version of its search engine for use in China, and its involvement in military drone technology.

2018 was also challenging for both Tesla and Uber. Pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was struck by a self-driving car belonging to ride-hailing app Uber in Arizona. Her death raised doubts over the safety of Uber’s autonomous software, which failed to detect Herzberg because of a bug, according to reports.

HAWTHORNE, CA - DECEMBER 18: Elon Musk, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Inc., speaks at an unveiling event for The Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel December 18, 2018 in Hawthorne, California. On Tuesday night, The Boring Company will officially open the Hawthorne tunnel, a preview of Musk's larger vision to ease traffic in Los Angeles. (Photo by Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images)
: Elon Musk, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Inc., speaks at an unveiling event for The Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel (Photo: Getty)

Tesla’s charismatic chief executive Elon Musk started the year on a high after shooting a Roadster car into orbit, but has buckled under the pressure of missed targets for its Model 3 car and the fall-out over tweeting misleading privatisation details and wrongly accusing a British diver involved in the rescue of the Thai schoolboys from a cave of being a paedophile.

Given the shift in public attitude towards tech giants, 2019 will be expected to be an exercise in humility. Whether the companies will take heed or not remains to be seen.