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The FCC’s Jessica Rosenworcel on the digital divide in 2021

Image: Collision Conference / Protocol
Jessica Rosenworcel

Good morning! This Tuesday, we look back at the privacy fight in 2020. Also, Jessica Rosenworcel reflects on a crazy year in tech (and what it means for 2021), Qualtrics is going public for real this time, and the House voted to override Trump's defense spending bill veto.

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The Big Story

Who cares about privacy?

Almost no one, apparently. Issie Lapowsky took a deep dive into how the coronavirus pandemic shaped the privacy debate this year, and her conclusion was … not great for the privacy fans.

  • Remember in 2019, when there was all that talk about privacy legislation? It felt like 2020 would bring an even bigger fight. Instead we got a pandemic, and a whole new world of mass surveillance.

The pandemic created a "cash grab" moment for surveillance tech companies, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Issie.

  • "I think this has been the most dangerous moment for civil rights since 9/11," he said. "When you're faced with impossible choices like whether or not to keep schools open and deprive kids of an education or put them at risk, it's so easy to be taken in by the allure of magical thinking and startups that say if you just install this tracking device you'll somehow be able to avoid doing the impossible."

Contact tracing is a perfect microcosm of the debate: The technology comes with huge upsides and huge risks, most of them far more obvious than those of the technologies we usually think about. Privacy advocates say they're not trying to slow innovation or prevent help, but without legal protections in place, there's no way to guarantee that contact tracing data won't be used for other purposes in every situation.

  • In New York, Governor Cuomo has yet to sign a bill that would prevent data obtained through contact tracing to be used against New Yorkers in administrative and legal proceedings. And what's happening in other countries — where privacy concerns have been trampled by contact tracing and surveillance efforts — makes a lot of people really nervous.
  • Everyone's going to have to figure out where they stand in 2021. Will you tell Ticketmaster you tested negative in order to get into a concert? Will you make your employees prove they're vaccinated before they come back to work?

There were some big wins this year, though, for police reform and racial justice advocates in particular: Portland, Maine banned facial recognition technology, and Michigan voted to require police to seek search warrants for electronic data. And a few other states passed privacy laws, too.

For more on the nitty-gritty of this year's privacy debate, you can check out the rest of Issie's privacy year-in-review story right here.

2020

Jessica Rosenworcel got a quarantine puppy

To mark the end of 2020, we've asked the same questions of some of the most interesting people in tech to find out what they've learned this year, how their work has changed and what's going to stick going forward. Today, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

What was the biggest change to your personal work habits in 2020, outside all the obvious stuff like "more video calls?"

With two kids doing remote learning and a spouse who is also working from home, there aren't many quiet spaces in our house. Plus, we're using a lot more bandwidth during the day than we ever have before. So I find myself — like a lot of people — playing a lot of different roles. One moment I'm running an office call, another I'm speaking via video at an online conference, and in yet another I'm Wi-Fi fixer and snack-maker. My days are full!

Is there anything you wish you had done sooner (in 2020 or even before), knowing what we know now about how the world works?

During this pandemic, like a lot of others, we brought a new dog into the family. He's a four-year-old rescue pup named Bo. He's seventy pounds of energy and joy. But I wish we had brought him on board before this began. It would have been great to head out and about with him before so many restrictions were put in place. Even so, I'm so glad he's in our lives.

What's one thing that was new to you or your team in 2020 that you're definitely going to carry over in 2021?

At the start of this pandemic, I noticed that if the routine noise of life at home interrupted anyone during a work call, they would apologize. But at some point, I think we all recognized that's no longer necessary. If the doorbell rings or a pet appears, so be it. There's no need to ask for forgiveness. There are a lot of people balancing a lot at home right now. I hope we can all take this attitude into the future with us because saying sorry that life interferes with work — be it basketball practice, a parent-teacher conference, or a doctor's visit — isn't necessary. We can make space for that to happen, no apologies necessary.

What 2020 tech story or trend are you most interested in following next year?

Long before this virus changed so much, I talked about how the cruelest part of our digital divide is the Homework Gap. That's when students do not have the internet access they need at home to do nightly schoolwork. But right now this Homework Gap is turning into an education gap because as many as 17 million kids in the United States do not have the broadband they need for remote learning. They're locked out of the virtual classroom. This is not acceptable. We absolutely need to put policies in place to fix this problem so no child is left offline.

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In Other News

  • The House voted to override Trump's veto of a defense spending bill, which he refused to sign unless it repealed Section 230. The Senate is likely to do the same, and two sources told Protocol's Emily Birnbaum that there won't be more Section 230 fights on Capitol Hill this week.
  • The FAA published a new set of rules for drone use in the U.S. The biggest change is Remote ID, a universal identification system for any qualifying drone in flight that includes information about where its pilot is located.
  • SAP formally filed its S-1 to take Qualtrics public, after announcing its plans to do so a few months ago. The most unusual point I spotted was the challenge that comes from being both a public company and one that's owned by SAP. "SAP's interests and objectives as a stockholder may not align with, or may even directly conflict with, your interests and objectives as a stockholder," the S-1 explains. Which is … honest!
  • Tesla's safety is being questioned again, after a Model S caught fire — "shooting out like a flamethrower," the driver said — in Texas last month. The NHTSA is investigating.
  • The U.S. government filed another appeal against the injunction on a TikTok ban, and … you know what, never mind, forget it. I'll let you know next time there's an actual change in the TikTok story.
  • Perhaps 2020's most infamous computer repair shop owner, from The New York Post story about Hunter Biden, is suing Twitter for defamation, based on Twitter's initial decision to prevent the story from being shared because it was based on "hacked materials." He wants $500 million.
  • Don't miss this story about China's experiments with digital currency and all the ways that ditching physical money can change society, from The Wall Street Journal. What's happening in China is coming for the rest of the world, fast.
  • VW has a new charger for electric vehicles, and this one's a bit more full-service. It's a robot that can autonomously travel through parking lots, charge a car and then head back to its base. In theory, any parking lot could be a lot full of chargers.

One More Thing

2021 is looking up already

"Ratatouille: The Musical" started off as a joke, then became a meme, and now it's very, very real. (Like, "Wayne Brady is starring" real.) Mark your calendar, because "Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical" is happening on Friday at 4 p.m. PT. And based on the songs we've seen so far, you're going to want to get tickets.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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