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How CES keeps gadget enthusiasm going amid the backlash against Silicon Valley

The tech industry will gather in Las Vegas next month following a 2019 filled with scandals, investigations and heaps of criticism.

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The Google Assistant ride at CES 2019 -- those were the days.

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

CES is a celebration of the latest and greatest in tech, with no shortage of cheerleading. But that tone at next month's trade show will come at an especially bad time for the industry, with many of tech's brightest stars under siege from all sides.

In 2019, US state and federal officials opened antitrust investigations into big tech companies, Google and Amazon workers held public demonstrations against their own employers, and Facebook continued to suffer from privacy scandals

The rosy optimism about how tech would change the world has turned into scrutiny and concern

It's under this negative backdrop that 170,000 people in the industry -- including software developers, top-tier CEOs, automotive execs and hordes of reporters -- gather early next month in Las Vegas for CES, the world's biggest tech show.

The future is private

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried on new messaging at the company's F8 conference this year.

James Martin/CNET

While tech titans including Amazon and Google will likely unveil flashy new partnerships and devices as part of the show, they'll have to reckon with their tarnished reputations and numerous miscues.

How much these companies use CES to talk about their recent privacy blunders and antitrust investigations will be telling for how they approach these issues during the rest of the year. While unlikely, a series of onstage mea culpas or calls to clean things up could encourage changes in the broader industry. More likely, tech's biggest names will use CES to balance out all the scandals with enthusiasm for new stuff.

Jane Barratt, chief advocacy officer at financial tech company MX and the ex-CEO of startup GoldBean, said it's vital to discuss all the new tech at the show in the context of privacy and regulation.

"Of course CES is for new products, but at some point there is that broader responsibility" to weigh the societal impacts of new tech, she said. "That's generally been very absent at CES."

At the upcoming show, there will be discussions about privacy issues, with CES hosting a chief privacy officer roundtable that will include executives from Facebook and Apple, two companies that haven't presented at the show in years.

Other industry watchers said tech's broader troubles won't resonate at CES for most attendees or the public at large. If a tough issue like privacy is brought up at a glitzy product presentation, they argue, it will be in the context of selling consumers a gadget.

After all, with Google hosting an amusement park ride to attract attention to its digital assistant software at CES 2019, the trade show may not be the best place for soul searching or nuance.

"Many of the economic and political issues don't come into play when someone decides what TV to buy," said Stephen Baker, a tech analyst at research firm NPD.

Turning the page on 2019

This year comes to a close as one of the more difficult for the tech industry, with companies once viewed as exciting inventors of the future now seen with far more suspicion and derision. Along with hefty government fines against Facebook and Google's YouTube, tech companies were criticized for failing to tell their customers that they were listening to voice assistant recordings, which sometimes included private conversations.

Industry leaders have found ways to address concerns about their companies, sometimes at their own product events. Their efforts have not always landed. For instance, at Facebook's F8 developer conference in April, CEO Mark Zuckerberg quipped that "we don't exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly."

He waited for laughs from the audience and was instead met with silence.

But at Amazon's devices event in September, hardware chief David Limp opened the presentation with an extended, and far more serious, discussion of how his company was addressing consumer privacy concerns. That message seemed far more effective.

Whether any tech leaders will spend time on privacy during their tightly choreographed CES sales pitches remains to be seen.

Making good on 2020

For its part, the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, is seeking to show it's not shying away from some of the thorniest issues roiling tech. Asked about how CTA may address tech's battered reputation at the show, spokeswoman Caroline Finnell said CES 2020 will include four privacy and security-focused talks, as well as the roundtable featuring chief privacy officers from tech companies.

She said that CTA's programming is also "focusing heavily on tech for good, diversity and inclusion" and that the organization will talk about its efforts to give more Americans the opportunity to access high-skilled jobs.

Despite the added attention on the problems of tech companies, Baker suggested these issues haven't impacted the broader public's impressions all that much and thus don't need to be addressed at the show.

For example, Ring, the video doorbell company owned by Amazon, has been confronted with numerous investigative stories about its partnerships with local police departments. At the same time, sales of video doorbells overall jumped 72% this year through October, Baker said. Smart speaker sales are also up significantly, too, despite the concerns about human reviewers listening to users' recordings.

CES might even be an opportunity for these companies to re-focus the public's attention to the benefits of new technologies, said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush, a financial services company. That may not fix all the problems, but it may help rebuild some trust.

"It would really be healthy for them to say: The good outweighs the bad. Let's talk about the good," he said.