It has been another busy year in the world of technology, with new innovations arriving during 2019 including 5G, but also political problems such as the ongoing debate around Huawei.
Here is a look at some of the most important stories of the year.
– Social media and the focus on online harms
Social media and internet companies entered 2019 already under pressure to improve the policing of harmful content on their platforms.
But the intervention by Ian Russell, who suggested that Instagram had been a contributing factor in his daughter Molly’s suicide in 2017, sparked heightened debate, and placed further scrutiny on social media platforms and the need to more robustly regulate them.
Stories of abusive content become more regular and technology firms were forced to respond – Instagram has since announced multiple new features designed to clamp down on harmful content, particularly that linked to self-harm as well as cyberbullying.
Then, in April, the Government published a white paper around online harms which proposed an independent regulator for social media companies be introduced, with greater penalties for those which breach a new statutory duty of care to their users should they be exposed to harmful or abusive content.
Politicians and campaigners have remained vocal on the work that platforms still need to do, with NSPCC suggesting Facebook “underplayed” the scale of online harm when it published content removal figures in November.
That scrutiny and pressure is likely to continue in 2020 – Boris Johnson’s government has pledged to introduce an Online Harms Bill – with the wider debate around misinformation and fake news online only fuelling the demand for tighter rules on social media.
– Facebook’s continued fall from grace
Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, Facebook hoped to use 2019 as a platform to rebuild its reputation by positioning itself at the centre of calls for more privacy online, and as a way of empowering people.
However, the company has instead been hit with a number of new controversies.
The social networking giant’s plans to launch a cryptocurrency and digital wallet in 2020 were met with scepticism when unveiled in June, with many referring to the firm’s checkered history with user data as a cause for concern if it entered the financial market.
Several big early backers of the Libra currency, including Visa and Mastercard, subsequently pulled out of the project.
Facebook’s approach to freedom of expression has also come under fire during the year, firstly over the time it took to ban figures such as far-right activist Tommy Robinson over hate speech, which eventually happened in February.
But also under scrutiny has been the firm’s stance on political advertising, which Facebook said it would not factcheck ahead of the December General Election in the UK and with a US presidential election coming in 2020.
Critics argued Facebook was allowing misinformation to remain prominent on the platform as a result, while Facebook argued it was a “complex” issue and people should be allowed to decide for themselves what they believe when seeing such adverts.
In a speech at an event for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in November, actor and activist Sacha Baron Cohen called social media the “greatest propaganda machine in history”, and said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s argument that the approach taken by others to removing content was akin to censorship was “absurd”.
With the US presidential election coming in 2020, next year is unlikely to be any quieter for the social media giant.
– The launch of 5G
One of the major technological innovations of the year, the first 5G networks began rolling out in the UK in the summer, offering speeds several times that of 4G.
For now, it is predominately central, urban areas which have 5G coverage, and only in some places and on some networks, driven by the likes of EE, Vodafone and O2.
The new high-speed network is seen by some as the pathway to a technological revolution, with the increased bandwidth of 5G able to carry the vast amounts of data needed for the foundations for advances such as driverless car networks and remote surgery in years to come.
In 2020 5G use is likely to increase drastically as network coverage expands and more 5G-ready devices enter the market.
– Huawei, 5G and cybersecurity
Linked to the rollout of 5G has been the ongoing stand-off between the US government and Chinese phone giant Huawei, which has seen the phone maker cut off from Android mobile operating systems amid accusations of being a security risk.
The year began with questions over the company and its links to the Chinese state, with critics arguing that the company could be compelled to carry out surveillance on people in the West by the Chinese government. Huawei has always denied the allegations.
But the story has not gone away – arguably fuelled by China’s trade war with the United States – and Huawei has found its trade with US companies heavily restricted.
This has seen the firm’s new smartphones cut off from the Android operating system upon which they run, which effectively prevented its Mate 30 Series from launching in Europe in the autumn.
And as 5G began to arrive in the UK, the Government has been pressured to decide whether or not Huawei’s telecoms equipment should be allowed to be part of 5G infrastructure going forward.
Some UK intelligence allies have restricted the Chinese company’s presence, but a Government review is still to publish its verdict on the matter.
The issue even led to a sacking from the Cabinet in May, with Gavin Williamson dismissed as defence secretary after The Daily Telegraph reported that Theresa May’s government would approve Huawei’s presence in 5G telecoms.
That information had been leaked from a National Secretary Council meeting.
As 2020 arrives, the future of Huawei in the West remains uncertain.
– The shaky start for foldable phones
Huawei was also a part of another major development of 2019, the unveiling of the first mainstream foldable smartphones.
No longer rumoured prototype devices, smartphones with flexible displays that allow a larger screen to be unfolded are now in public hands.
Samsung got there first, releasing their Galaxy Fold in the autumn, but only after a delay following issues with its screen.
Huawei, who delayed their own Mate X and have since only released it in China, now also face competition from Motorola, which has revamped its own Razr clamshell mobile phone to include a foldable display.
Samsung, as well as plenty of others, are expected to continue the foldable trend into 2020.
– Streaming continues to grow
Netflix and Amazon’s seeming dominance of the video streaming market met its first real challenger this year as Apple entered the market for the first time.
The newly launched Apple TV+ comes with a range of original programming, starring the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Jason Momoa.
ITV and BBC-backed BritBox has also appeared on the scene, which pledges to offer a wide range of British TV boxsets as well as films and original shows.
Video game platforms too are embracing the idea, with cloud streaming – the ability to play console games remotely on other devices such as smartphones – launching as well via Google Stadia and the upcoming Project xCloud from Xbox, both of which are likely to expand during the next year.