In the world of tech policy news, 2021 began with Twitter and other social networks banning then-President Donald Trump after the January 6 insurrection. Many other noteworthy stories followed in the ensuing months.
The Elizabeth Holmes trial featured fascinating revelations about Theranos, while the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial didn’t let the prosecutor use an iPad’s pinch-to-zoom feature. Missouri’s Republican governor claimed that viewing HTML code is “hacking,” WhatsApp forced users to share data with Facebook, Apple announced a controversial plan to scan photos, and the Supreme Court saved the software industry from API copyrights. President Joe Biden failed to give Democrats a majority on the Federal Communications Commission, and Republicans are now fighting Biden’s belated attempt to fill the FCC’s empty seat.
As usual, we wrote plenty of stories about telecom companies behaving badly—such as when Verizon forced users onto pricier plans to get $50-per-month government subsidies. This article lists and summarizes our top policy stories of the year, which we selected based on reader interest and importance.
When Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos, she said she wanted to change the way clinical diagnostic testing happened, making it so quick and easy that patients could get their results in as little as 20 minutes. It sounded too good to be true—and it was. This year, the founder and former CEO of the failed company went to trial accused of defrauding investors and patients alike.
Jurors heard about Theranos’ prodigious burn rate, its myriad problems with diagnostic laboratories, fudged investor demos, forged reports, and bilked investors. And that was all before Holmes took the stand. When that happened, she threw scientists under the bus, accused her ex-boyfriend of abusive behavior, and engaged in a bit of revisionist history in an attempt to counter the testimony of 29 witnesses called by the prosecution.
During the Kyle Rittenhouse trial that ended in an acquittal, Judge Bruce Schroeder prevented Kenosha County prosecutor Thomas Binger from using the pinch-to-zoom feature on an iPad while showing drone footage from the night of the fatal shootings in Wisconsin. After defense attorney Mark Richards claimed that with pinch-to-zoom, “Apple’s iPad programming creat[es] what it thinks is there, not what necessarily is there,” Schroeder agreed that zooming in might “insert more items” into the video. Binger scrapped the plan to use an iPad during cross-examination of Rittenhouse and instead displayed the drone video on a 4K TV hooked up to a Windows computer.
For years, Intel was at the top of the semiconductor industry. Its chip designs and fabs were the envy of the world. But a few years ago, the company stumbled, and today, it’s no longer able to make cutting-edge chips. CEO Pat Gelsinger thinks he has a plan, though, and it requires the historically insular Intel to open its fabs to make chips for “the community at large.”
Semiconductor manufacturing has benefited from scale, a trend that has only increased as transistors have shrunk. Without foundry customers, Intel may not have sufficient scale to stay at the leading edge. “Intel falling behind TSMC and Samsung in the very leading-edge technology can be traced to the fact that Intel did not participate in the foundry,” UC-Berkeley Professor Chenming Hu told Ars. It’s not the first time Intel has tried to become a foundry, but it might be the first time it has had to. Success, Hu said, “really depends on whether you think you have to do it.”
In August, Apple announced a plan to have iPhones and other Apple devices scan photos for child-sexual-abuse material (CSAM) before images are uploaded to iCloud. Security experts and privacy advocates expressed alarm, arguing that governments will demand that the photo-scanning system be used for broader surveillance—for example by “demand[ing] that Apple scan for and block images of human rights abuses, political protests, and other content that should be protected as free expression.”
Apple defended the system’s privacy protections and said it would refuse government demands to expand photo-scanning beyond CSAM. But in September, the industry titan said it will “take additional time over the coming months” to improve the program before deploying it. Apple recently removed references to CSAM scanning from its Child Safety webpage but told Ars on December 15 that “nothing has changed” in its plan to eventually deploy the system. Apple also implemented a related system that scans photos in Messages for nudity, but this only applies to Apple devices used by children and is optional for parents.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson really didn’t want to admit that a state government website exposed the full Social Security numbers of teachers and other school employees in unencrypted form. The Republican governor called the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who found the gaping security hole a “hacker” and threatened both criminal charges and “a civil suit to recover damages against all those involved.” In reality, Post-Dispatch reporter Josh Renaud had simply viewed the website’s HTML code, notified government officials of the security problem, and did not report the flaw publicly until after it was fixed.
The bizarre investigation also targeted Shaji Khan, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who helped Renaud verify the security vulnerability. Khan responded with a letter to Parson and several state agencies explaining that viewing a website’s unencrypted source code is not illegal or “hacking” and that translating the source code into plain text can be “done by anyone.” It later emerged that Missouri state government officials planned to publicly thank the journalist who discovered the security flaw before a drastic change in plans.
Donald Trump was permanently banned from Twitter after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, with Twitter saying it made the decision to prevent “further incitement of violence.” Trump was also banned by other social networks, which finally had enough of the one-term president. Trump later sued Twitter, Facebook, and Google subsidiary YouTube, claiming that all three companies are guilty of “impermissible censorship” that violates “the First Amendment right to free speech.” But courts have generally found that the First Amendment protects companies’ right to moderate user-submitted content, which leads to our next story.