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Facebook, Amazon, Samsung: 2019 is the year tech couldn’t stop screwing up – CNET

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The tech industry was riding high a decade ago: Facebook and Twitter were becoming vital components for pro-democracy protestors around the world; Apple's iPhone was taking off; and a new class of startups like Uber and TaskRabbit appeared ready to change the world.

As we close out the 2010s, the love affair we all had with tech has turned definitively sour.

Now playing: Watch this: 2019's Top 5 tech turkeys


Social media may be helping connect people and make their lives better, but it's also been twisted into a tool of propagandists aiming to upend our elections. It's become home to serial harassers, who send troll armies that threaten to rape and kill their perceived enemies. It's become a hotbed of revenge porn and conspiracy theories. And mass murderers have used social platforms' livestreaming technology to promote their terror, and then their devotees have used the social networks to spread their recordings further.

But it wasn't all Facebook, Twitter and YouTube screwing up. There was Uber's disappointing IPO, WeWork's corporate failures, the continuing scooter wars and, of course, we can't forget about MoviePass.

As we prepare for 2020 here's a look back, in no particular order, at the crazy year that was 2019.

This isn't just about what we think about 2019, by the way. Tell us about anything that caught your attention, and why, in the comments below.

Samsung Galaxy Fold mess

Samsung's Galaxy Fold was one of the most anticipated phones of the year. It's a tablet-size device that can fold in half, into a phone. It looked like the future. Reviewers loved the idea. Readers were clamoring to know more.

But just days before its launch, reviewers began taking to Twitter to express concerns about its screen. Some had accidentally destroyed the device while removing what they thought was a protective film for shipping.

Though Galaxy Fold preorders sold out the first day, the phone's launch was pulled and no money was collected.

It was a shocking mistake by a company that already faced criticism over exploding batteries in its Galaxy Note 7 phones in 2017.

Samsung eventually fixed the problem, adding a protective cap to the folding hinge and changing the way the protective film was put on the phone's screen. But by the time the gadget went back on sale in September, reviewers were focused on what was wrong with it.

CNET itself tested how many times the Galaxy Fold could... fold. Turns out the answer was 119,380 folds -- short of the 200,000, or estimated five years of use, that Samsung said the phone should be able to withstand.

Facebook FTC decision is only $5 billion

Two years after Facebook's malfeasance came to light, in which it allowed as many as 87 million people's profile information to be leaked to British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, the US Federal Trade Commission finally decided on how to appropriately punish the social network. The answer was a $5 billion fine, and an agreement that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and some of his lieutenants would sign statements promising they were protecting user privacy.

"Despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers' choices," said FTC Chairman Joe Simons in a statement announcing the fine. "The relief is designed not only to punish future violations but, more importantly, to change Facebook's entire privacy culture to decrease the likelihood of continued violations."

Few were impressed with the outcome, though. Some noted that it's a drop in the bucket for Facebook, which made $22 billion in profit last year.

Kara Swisher, theEditor at Large for Recode, who's interviewed Zuckerberg in public several times, wrotea New York Times column titled: "Put another zero on Facebook's fine. Then we can talk." The thrust of her argument was that such a small fine in the face of Facebook's overwhelming wealth "won't change anything."

For his part, Zuckerberg said in a statement that the social network would make "major structural changes" to how it builds products and conducts business.

"We have a responsibility to protect people's privacy," Zuckerberg wrote. "We already work hard to live up to this responsibility, but now we're going to set a completely new standard for our industry."

Facebook's Libra mess

Amid its myriad controversies, Zuckerberg decided it would be a good time to wade into more politics by announcing a new currency called Libra. It was designed, Facebook said, as an internet-friendly way to move and store money. Though Facebook would be one of the biggest companies involved, a consortium called the Libra Association would run it. And Facebook itself would have a subsidiary, called Calibra, to handle regulation.

Naturally, there was skepticism. This was Facebook, after all.

By the time Libra had its first meeting in October, a quarter of the original 28 founding members (including PayPal, eBay, Stripe, Visa and Mastercard) had dropped out.

As for Facebook, Zuckerberg got an earful during a hearing with Congress shortly after the departures.

"As I have examined Facebook's various problems," California Rep. Maxine Waters said to open one of the congressional hearings on Libra, "I have come to the conclusion that it would be beneficial for all if Facebook concentrates on addressing its many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding any further on the Libra project."

Apple FaceTime bug

Apple says a lot of things separate its products from those of competitors. There's the slick design, the thoughtful software and the promise that everything will work together almost seamlessly.

Over the past couple of years, Apple has also made the case that its products are more respectful of our privacy. The company even put up a billboard during the annual CES show in Las Vegas in January saying "What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone."

Then, in late January, users discovered a bug in Apple's FaceTime video chat software that let you remotely turn on anyone's camera and microphone with little warning.

Apple immediatelyshut down its Group FaceTime service while it worked on a fix.

A couple of weeks later,Apple released a fix, and reiterated that it takes the security of its products "extremely seriously."

Tesla's Cybertruck launch hits a bump

When Tesla CEO Elon Musk got on stage, he had everything ready. He had a cheering crowd, an eye-catching new car to show off and a demo to give. Two and a half minutes later, his plans were shattered.

It all began with the Cybertruck, Tesla's new all-electric vehicle. Unlike Musk's sedans, race cars and SUVs, the Cybertruck is aimed at -- well, you get it.

To appeal to the truck-buying people who see ads like "Built Ford Tough," Musk & Co concocted a series of dramatic experiments to show how much tougher the Cybertruck was.

At first, one of Musk's lieutenants swung a sledgehammer at a normal truck door, leaving a dent. Then, he slammed it into the Cybertruck's steel door, and the door was unblemished.

Then it was time to show off the "armor glass," which Musk claimed was a "transparent metal-glass." His team began by dropping a huge ball bearing on a normal pane of glass from several feet in the air. It immediately cracked. Next, the armor glass. The first few tries, it came away looking fine. The ball fell with a different-sounding thud, and as it was dropped several more times, anyone wincing and waiting for the glass to break had likely calmed down and was thinking "Musk planned this demo; it'll go how he wants it to."

That, dear reader, is where everyone was wrong.

After the stage-demo science experiments, a proud Musk asked his lieutenant to throw the ball bearing at the Cybertruck's driver side window. A moment later, a web of cracks appeared where the ball bearing hit the glass. Musk, seemingly horrified, let out an expletive. For some reason, the lieutenant repeated his assault on the back passenger's window, and broke it too.

Musk attempted to save face, saying, "it didn't go through."

For the rest of the presentation, the broken windows just sat there, behind Musk: the new symbol of the Cybertruck. And Tesla will go down in history for one of the biggest fails in stage demo history.

The credits roll on MoviePass

Oh, MoviePass. You were always too good to be true. A $10 per month deal that let subscribers watch a movie a day, every day, in most theaters around the US was perhaps one of the worst business ideas ever. Especially considering it costs at least $3 more than that just to see one movie.

After a roller coaster year of drama in 2018, MoviePass cried "cut" and shut down Sept. 14.

If you're looking for alternatives, CNET has you covered.

Apple's butterfly keyboard gets mothballed

Butterflies are beautiful. Unfortunately, they make for troublesome keyboards.

In 2015, Apple began selling laptops with a new keyboard featuring a key design that was called the butterfly because of how it worked. (You can watch Apple's video about that here.) But it turned out the butterfly keys were prone to collecting dust, and offailing to register presses, or of sensing too many. The problems were vexing enough that Apple created a replacement program for the entire line while also attempting to solve the problem. Alas, even Apple's design wizards have their limits.

With the 2016 MacBook Pro, announced last month, Apple went back to the standard "scissor" design. Reviewers were elated. The keys, CNET's Scott Stein said, feel "more natural, and have a more generous 1mm of 'travel' -- so when you depress the key, you actually feel it move."

For some pregnant workers, Amazon warehouses are a nightmare

We've been hearing for years about grueling working conditions in Amazon's warehouses, but in May, CNET reported that the e-commerce giant fired seven pregnant workers, some shortly after they informed managers of their condition.

The ones who stayed on the job quickly learned that Amazon's grueling work environment was even more unforgiving to pregnant employees. For example, Amazon tracks when employees go to the bathroom, something pregnant ladies do quite often.

"I said, 'I'm telling you this because I'm going to have to use the bathroom more,' and she said, 'It's still against the rules,'" said Beverly Rosale, one of the women who struggled with work while pregnant. "We can't control our bladders. If we have to go, we have to go."

When Amazon fired Rosale, she said, the company told her she'd been taking too much time off, without acknowledging her pregnancy.

"It is absolutely not true that Amazon would fire any employee for being pregnant; we are an equal opportunity employer," an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. "We work with our employees to accommodate their medical needs including pregnancy-related needs. We also support new parents by offering various maternity and parental leave benefits."

Amazon earlier said it wasn't able to discuss the specifics of Rosales' lawsuit or the prior lawsuits. But in response to a request for comment for this story, the company said it "works hard to provide a safe, quality working environment for the more than 300,000 full and part-time employees working in our fulfillment and operations facilities across the US," adding that it offers up to 20 weeks of maternal and paternal paid leave, a work flexibility program for new parents, and full medical, vision and dental insurance.

Ring's cozy relationship with local police

Over the past year, CNET also learned details about the relationship between Amazon's Ring subsidiary and law enforcement. We learned Amazon was helping police build a surveillance network with Ring, and encouraging law enforcement to hawk its video doorbells without disclosing the relationship.

Amazon has also partnered with more than 500 cities to use Ring footage for law enforcement purposes, according to digital rights group Fight for the Future. In August, Ringreleased a map that lets you see if it's working with your local police department.

The revelations culminated in a letter from five US senators, sent to Amazon, asking for details about how Ring handles video footage, what its testing and auditing practices are, and its plans in regard to facial recognition.

Ring said in a statement for this story that it doesn't own or control users' videos and people get to decide whether to share videos with the police.

5G isn't here, but for AT&T, that wasn't enough

Everyone in the tech industry is excited about 5G. This new wireless technology is supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate, offering faster and more-reliable internet for our phones, while also more easily connecting cars, medical equipment and all sorts of other gizmos.

It's been slowly rolling out over the past year, turning on in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and London.

But for AT&T, that wasn't enough. While everyone waits for 5G, the wireless giant decided to rebrand its upgraded 4G technology as "5GE."

Industry analysts, commentators and competitors cried foul, saying AT&T's "deceptive" move would confuse everyone. Sprint even sued (the two eventually settled, though AT&T still uses the branding).

As for all of us, it turns out AT&T's bet paid off. About one in three Americans surveyedbelieved they had 5Gin May (They don't). Of them, 40% were iPhone owners, who definitely don't have 5G iPhones, because none have been released yet.


The US government really doesn't like Huawei

China-based Huawei is a popular communications technology maker known for creating reliable and cheap networking equipment and smartphones. But the scrutiny over Huawei has heightened over the last few years, in part after FBI Director Christopher Wraywarned against buying Huawei and ZTE phones.

This led to retailers and government agencies banning Huawei's technology. By this summer, President Donald Trump was calling Huawei a "national security threat," though without evidence.

Huawei was put on a government watchlist that barred US businesses from working with the company, which meant Huawei might lose access to key services Gmail and the Google Play app store. The company unveiled its own operating system as a potential alternative.

Amid all this, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on Dec. 6, 2018,at the request of the US. She's been imprisoned since,attempting to fight extradition to the states.

Equifax settlement money goes from more than a hundred dollars to effectively zero

Following Equifax's monumental privacy lapse, which allowed hackers tosteal personal information of more than 147 million people in 2017, the company announced a settlement requiring it to hand out as much as $700 million in fines and payments to victims.

As part of the settlement, Equifax said itwould offer 10 years of free credit monitoring or $125 in cash. Well, so many people signed up for the money that the Federal Trade Commission had to warn that the pot of cash set aside might dwindle to the point that people who opted for the paymentwould get close to nothing.

Stay tuned to find out which way Equifax will screw this up next.

Congress still can't hold decent hearings on tech

Oh, Congress, will you ever understand technology? So far, the answer appears to be a resounding "no." And thanks to that, we got several Capitol Hill hearings this year that went far off the rails.

Chief among them was a hearing on white supremacy, which devolved into partisan bickering.

Candace Owens, of the conservative college activist group Turning Point USA, argued to the committee that the hearing's actual goal was "fear-mongering, power and control" on the part of the committee's Democrats. One lawmaker responded by playing a video of Owens discussing Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's nationalism.

By the end, many of the committee members had left, and all Twitter could talk about was Owens' fiery rhetoric and the streams of racist and ugly comments left on the committee's YouTube page.

A Senate hearing the next day was no better. Titled "Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse," it became a series of circular debates. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas argued, without evidence, that social media companies were broadly silencing people they politically disagreed with.

Facebook lets politicians lie in political ads

As the 2020 election campaign heats up, tech companies are scrambling to make sure they don't get blamed for any problems that might arise.

Twitter, for example,said it would ban political ads. Google saidit would restrict them. Facebook, meanwhile, said it wouldallow ads from politicians to say whatever they want.

"The reason for [this policy] is that we believe that in a democracy, it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying," Zuckerbergsaid during an October hearing on Capitol Hill. "Political speech is some of the most scrutinized speech already in the world."

Many people disagreed with him, including Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, who ran an ad with a lie about Zuckerberg supporting Trump, just to make her point.

"Facebook changed their ads policy to allow politicians to run ads with known lies -- explicitly turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine,"Warren tweeted. "This week, we decided to see just how far it goes."

Zuckerberg still hasn't backed down.

Conservatives vs. Silicon Valley

Cruz isn't the only person who worries about how conservatives are treated by the tech industry. It's also a pet issue for Trump, who's claimed -- without evidence -- that tech companies stifle his and other people's social media posts.

The White House even set up a form in May, encouraging anyone who's been affected by tech's alleged "censorship" to speak out. The White House hasn't released the results of the survey.

Still, that didn't stop people from pushing on tech companies directly over conservative issues. They've argued the companies need to embrace "political diversity," a twist on the tech industry's efforts to bring more ethnic and gender diversity into its ranks.

One of the most dramatic moments this year was at Apple's annual shareholder meeting, in March, during which some investors argued that the iPhone maker should have mandatory "ideological diversity" on its board.

"Diversity is not what someone looks like, it's the sum of what they think," activist Justin Danhof said while speaking at the meeting. Danhof, who's general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, added that the tech industry's focus on increasing racial and gender diversity is "racism and sexism."

The proposal was shot down, with more than 98 percent of voting shareholders casting ballots against it.

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Facebook, Amazon, Samsung: 2019 is the year tech couldn't stop screwing up - CNET

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