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Hillicon Valley — Tech’s big year

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Tech's big year

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 3

© Hill Illustration/Madeline Monroe/AP, Jenny Kane/AP, Rebecca Blackwell/The Hill, Greg Nash

Today is Thursday. Welcome to Hillicon Valley, detailing all you need to know about tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Follow The Hill’s tech team, Chris Mills Rodrigo (katanamillsrodrigo) and Rebecca Klar (katanarebeccaklar_), and cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (katanamagmill95), and for more coverage.

Happy New Year’s Eve eve! A big year for tech and cybersecurity news is (finally) wrapping up. Celebrate the end of the year with us by taking a look back on some of the most notable moments over the last 12 months.

Programming note: Hillicon Valley is taking tomorrow off but will return on Monday.

Let’s jump into the news.

 

Antitrust starts, stops on Capitol Hill

The Capitol is seen from the Capitol Reflecting Pool at sunrise on Tuesday, October 26, 2021.

© Greg Nash

The House Judiciary Committee in June advanced six bills aimed at revamping antitrust laws to target the biggest tech companies in the U.S.

But while they had bipartisan support, the bills faced roadblocks on both sides of the aisle. Notably, members of the California delegation — even typically solid progressive votes — pushed back against the bills, which largely target companies based in the Golden State.

In the upper chamber, senators put forward some similar proposals to target the market power of tech giants, but despite numerous hearings in both chambers the proposals have largely stalled. 

Meanwhile: The Biden administration signaled it would take a tough stance on antitrust through nominations to key regulatory and advisory positions.

President Biden nominated Lina Khan as chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, nominated Jonathan Kanter to head the Department of Justice’s antitrust division and appointed Tim Wu to a White House advisory role. All three picks were backed by the progressive movement to break up tech giants.

Jog your memory:

Tech antitrust bills create strange bedfellows

California Democrats clash over tech antitrust 

 

Trump banned on social media

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 4

© Getty

Social media companies for most of the Trump administration were chastised by critics for taking too little action against posts by former President Trump that seemed to violate the platforms’ rules.

However, after the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, social media companies — to varying degrees — took action against Trump’s accounts. While Twitter banned Trump permanently, Facebook pushed its decision off onto its quasi-independent Oversight Board.

In June the board said an indefinite suspension was not appropriate, leading Facebook to keep Trump's account suspended until at least Jan. 7, 2023 — with the option to let him back on before the next presidential election.

That decision pleased neither side, fueling Democrats’ criticism that the platform wasn't taking a hard enough stance against content that violates its policies and Republicans’ accusations that Facebook is censoring conservative content. A final call on Trump's account is still unclear

Refresher:

Facebook weighs pivotal decision on Trump ban

Facebook suspends Trump until at least 2023

 

A MESSAGE FROM HUAWEI

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 5
 

Facebook whistleblower goes to Washington

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 6

© Julia Nikhinson

Facebook had a rocky end to the year in terms of Washington scrutiny and the court of public opinion, largely due to documents leaked by company whistleblower Frances Haugen.

In October, several news outlets published a series of stories based on thousands of internal Facebook documents that Haugen leaked, which painted a picture of a company prioritizing profits and ignoring internal warning signs on safety issues. 

Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s Integrity team, also testified in the House, Senate and abroad about the Silicon Valley giant. In the U.S., lawmakers largely clung to leaked documents about children’s safety on Facebook and Instagram, which has emerged as a rare issue with bipartisan support. 

As for Facebook, now under new parent company Meta, executives argued the internal documents misrepresent the research and dismissed Haugen’s testimony by saying she “had no direct reports” and “never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives.” 

Recap:

Four big takeaways from a tough hearing for Facebook

Facebook papers turn up heat on embattled social media platform

 

Cyber world rocked by attacks

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 7

It was a tumultuous year in cybersecurity, which saw both the private sector and government increasingly pummeled by attacks that forced both the Biden administration and Congress to take steps to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity against both nation states and cybercriminals.

Microsoft breach: The impact of the SolarWinds hack, discovered late in 2020 to have allowed Russian government-backed hackers to compromise nine U.S. government agencies, was dying down when Chinese hackers began exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Exchange Server. Microsoft acknowledged the breach in March.

The vulnerabilities left thousands of organizations exposed and led to the United States and other allied nations formally blaming China for exploiting the vulnerabilities. 

This was the second time that the Biden administration stepped in during 2021 to formally pin the blame on another nation for a cyberattack, with President Biden levying sanctions on Russia in April in retaliation for both the SolarWinds hack and election interference.  

More hacks, more action: Beyond nation state interference, ransomware attacks rose to the forefront of concerns in 2021. An attack in May on Colonial Pipeline, which provides 45 percent of the East Coast’s fuel, preceded temporary gas shortages. Later, ransomware attacks on meat producer JBS USA and IT company Kaseya also served to endanger critical organizations and supply chains.

Biden signed an executive order to strengthen the federal government’s cybersecurity in the week after the discovery of the Colonial Pipeline hack, and Congress took up legislation to require companies to report cyber incidents. This bipartisan legislation is still awaiting passage.

 

BITS AND PIECES

An op-ed to chew on: Best and worst crisis management in 2021

Lighter click: Guilty as charged 

Notable links from around the web: 

Everybody Into the Metaverse! Virtual Reality Beckons Big Tech. (The New York Times / Cade Metz)  

The breakthrough list: 11 people who had a big 2021 (Protocol / Biz Carson) 

Facebook’s Pushback: Stem the Leaks, Spin the Politics, Don’t Say Sorry (The Wall Street Journal / Keach Hagey, Georgia Wells, Emily Glazer, Deepa Seetharaman and Jeff Horwitz) 

 

A MESSAGE FROM HUAWEI

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 5
 

One last thing: Alexa gets an update

Hillicon Valley — Tech's big year 9

Amazon updated its Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) after a user posted that an Amazon device told their child to do what is known as the “penny challenge,” a company spokesperson said Thursday. 

“Customer trust is at the center of everything we do and Alexa is designed to provide accurate, relevant, and helpful information to customers,” the spokesperson said in a statement. 

“As soon as we became aware of this error, we quickly fixed it, and will continue to advance our systems to help prevent similar responses in the future,” they added.

Read more here.

 

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s technology and cybersecurity pages for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you Monday!

 
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