Mark Zuckerberg, Meta's CEO, at Facebook Connect 2021 presentation. Image: Screenshot.

A tough year for big techs

In many ways, 2021 was one more year of regulatory pressure and public scrutiny of big tech companies. But the future is now promising – as it didn't seem to be in a long time

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The 2021’s screenwriter has gone crazy: right at the start, on January 6, a bunch of lunatics, spurred on by the President of the United States himself, invaded the Capitol in an explicit attempt at a coup d’état. They didn’t succeed but left a few dead people, hundreds injured and the world astonished.

The failed attempt, largely organized through Facebook groups, was the first in a series of big tech events that marked the year. In many ways, 2021 was a continuation of the regulatory pressure and increasing public scrutiny on these companies. But, in the end, it can be said that we made tangible progress and the future is promising.

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If the attack on the Capitol brought a huge headache to Facebook in its own backyard, WhatsApp‘s new privacy policy has extended the migraine to the rest of the world. The pressure against it paid off: the policy, which would be mandatory, is still optional today — my WhatsApp keeps showing me that screen, asking for acceptance. A small victory against a big tech.

Except for the quarterly financial statements, which showed that the company’s cash machine is still operating at full capacity, 2021 was a year of successive defeats for Facebook. In September, the company suspended its plan to create an exclusive version of Instagram for kids. It was a reaction to early Wall Street Journal reports based on what would turn out to be the biggest leak of insider secrets of a tech company, the Facebook Papers.

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Facebook Papers were the big story of 2021. The flurry of documents, polls, email, and internal message exchanges confirmed many suspicions about Facebook. Not even the diversionism of the name change — for Meta — in November eased the scandal. Although it must be acknowledged, the change helped to imprint the (not so new) idea – and, for now, just the idea – of a metaverse in people’s imagination. A virtual environment created by Facebook to clean up its reputation, and, at the same time, extend its domain over our lives.

Another big tech exposed by internal documents – those revealed by Justice – was Alphabet, Google‘s parent company. Finally, it became known that the purpose of the AMP was to consolidate Google‘s dominance in online advertising, for example. More importantly, the documents exposed several suspicious (to say the least) schemes that Google employs to undermine competition in the online advertising industry.

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On another plot, Google played a supporting role: the war for the 30% commission of the app stores. Here, the main target was and is Apple, which was dragged into a legal dispute in the United States by Epic Games and walled up in some countries, such as South Korea, for the same controversy. Until now, Apple has managed to avoid major changes in the arrangement that guarantees it tens of billions of dollars a year with minimal effort and at the expense of companies developing applications for their platforms.

Apple‘s unrestricted supporter image cracked. The idea of inspecting photos on its customers’ iPhones, announced in August, caught on too badly and served as proof that good intentions alone don’t justify the unjustifiable. Apple sought to combat the exchange of child pornography images with the proposal. After all, not always “what happens on your iPhone does not stay on your iPhone”. The company backed off on this issue and backed off on more mundane issues, such as what (supposedly) is best for customers.

Jeff Bezos and Jack Dorsey left the day-to-day running of their businesses, Amazon and Twitter, to focus on their own projects — space travel and cryptocurrencies, respectively (good luck with that – but not much).

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All these events were very important, even though they were far from the eyes of the general public. For the most part, perhaps what marked 2021 was the spectacular outdage in Facebook services on October 4th. In Brazil, in particular, those six hours in which Facebook virtually ceased to exist served to make us aware of the dependence on WhatsApp and the need for alternatives and new ways of dealing with essential applications. It is no coincidence that Telegram has grown so much — it was the app that stood out in terms of monthly users in 2021, according to consultancy App Annie.

Throughout the year, several countries imposed fines on big techs, increasing pressure against their abusive practices. Even Brazil, via Procon-SP, charged a few million reais from Facebook. For the first time in a long time, antitrust bodies have risen up against M&A in the sector: the UK forced Facebook to divest in Giphy, and the U.S., the UK, and European Union challenged Nvidia‘s acquisition of Arm.

More recently, the EU also enacted the Digital Market Act (DMA), an ambitious legislation that aims to regulate the performance of large technology companies that act as gatekeepers. The potential of such a project is huge.

Time‘s person of the year was Elon Musk. “Visionary. Showman. Iconoclast. Troll. How Elon Musk is reshaping our world — and beyond,” reads the magazine’s headline. May 2022 be better than that.