Perhaps it was a bad omen. Logan Paul, one of YouTube's biggest stars, posted videos to his 15 million subscribers late last year chronicling a trip to Japan. Many of the videos were eye-roll worthy enough. One example: He threw large Pokemon balls at people on the street. But things got unpleasant when he visited a forest that's become a magnet for suicides. While the cameras were rolling, he and his crew found a body -- video that he later uploaded. The resulting firestorm prompted YouTube to boot him from a special advertising program, while sponsors backed away. YouTube also delayed the release of a new video series he'd worked on with the company. Nearly a year later, he's ended up with 3 million more subscribers than he had before the fiasco.
(If you're in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741)
Eleven months ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his New Year's resolution was to fix Facebook. He'd likely agree that he didn't accomplish that task. In March, The New York Times and The Guardian's Observer broke news that the social networking giant had covered up a massive data leak of people's names, emails, likes and friends that affected as many as 87 million people. Propelling the scandal further: Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy that received the data, had worked for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. To make matters worse, Facebook didn't reveal the leak for three years. In the end, Zuckerberg was called to Capitol Hill to give his first public testimony to the Senate and House of Representatives. Of course, that turned out to be a turkey of its own...
A little over a month after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Zuckerberg began his first public testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate's Commerce and Judiciary Committees. Congress and the public were pissed. Polls showed eroding trust in Facebook. It looked like lawmakers were preparing to regulate the whole tech industry over the episode. About an hour in, however, Facebook's shares shot up. Wall Street was convinced the show was a nothingburger because senators embarrassed themselves asking the most basic of questions. When one senator asked how the company makes money, Zuckerberg replied, "Senator, we run ads." Cheers broke out at Facebook HQ where the proceeding was being watched and, of course, someone turned it into a T-shirt. Legislation, meanwhile has lost momentum, and even the widely supported "Honest Ads Act" hasn't gotten off the ground.
During the hearings, several lawmakers raised concerns that Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies might be silencing prominent conservatives. Zuckerberg acknowledged Silicon Valley's largely left-leaning culture, but said he attempted to work neutrally when considering whether to ban anyone for violating rules against harassment, threats and other terms of service. President Donald Trump raised the issue several times in interviews and on his Twitter feed, both before and after the tech industry moved nearly in lockstep to ban the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their respective services. Jones was perhaps best known for harassing the families of children killed in mass shootings.
Facebook stepped in it again in September, when it revealed the largest hack in its history. At first, the company said the breach, which came by way of hackers stealing "tokens" that allow them to impersonate users and access their information, potentially affected 50 million people. But it reduced that number to 29 million. To be safe, Facebook reset login information for 90 million people, including this reporter.
After such an awful year, you'd think Facebook would want to lie low. It didn't. In October, Facebook unveiled Portal, a video chat device that brings an internet-connected microphone and video camera to your home. CNET's reviewers liked the technology behind it, but got stuck on the creepiness factor. In an interview, Facebook VP Andrew "Boz" Bosworth said the company took extra precautions to ensure people's privacy, including a privacy cover for the camera and opting against including video recording. Whether that will be enough to convince people is still an open question.
The New York Times published a bombshell report Nov. 14 about how Facebook ignored early warning signs about Russian interference, deflected blame when it became public, and attempted to discredit prominent critics. The Times' report once again kicked off a firestorm of controversy and raised questions about Zuckerberg's leadership, as well as COO Sheryl Sandberg and her behavior. Zuckerberg held a conference call with reporters a day after the story published, denying Facebook ignored warning signs but admitting he wasn't aware of some of the PR misdeeds. Facebook partners and advertisers reacted saying Facebook's actions revealed the company was willing to use dirty politics to protect its brand. The Washington Post even called on Zuckerberg to step down as the company's chairman. Zuckerberg went on CNN a week after the scandal broke, defiantly saying he's not going anywhere and neither is Sandberg.
First published Nov. 16 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update at Nov. 22 at 5 a.m. PT: Adds more detail about Facebook's scandal and Zuckerberg's response.
The New York Times reported in October that Google had routinely paid high-profile men at the company to leave when it discovered credible allegations of sexual misbehavior. Android boss Andy Rubin, for example, was reportedly paid $90 million to leave in 2014 after the company found allegations about his behavior to be credible. The Times report enraged many Google employees, sparking walkouts at its offices around the world. One positive outcome: The company dropped a requirement that sexual harassment and assault complaints go to arbitration. Other tech companies, including Facebook, have followed suit.
Google wasn't the only company struggling with executive behavior. Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich resigned suddenly in June over a past relationship with an employee. The relationship was apparently consensual, but it violated Intel's nonfraternization policy that applies to all of the company's managers. The resignation marked an ignoble end for an executive whose legacy was to push for diversity at one of Silicon Valley's biggest companies. He'd also invested heavily in drones and virtual reality, though Intel ultimately gave up on that last one.
The year kicked off with two massive vulnerabilities, as security researchers disclosed Spectre and Meltdown: major flaws with processing chips that could let attackers steal sensitive data meant to stay secret. The vulnerability was most notable for its potential impact, potentially affecting chips in computers and mobile devices from as far back as the last 20 years. Companies rushed to fix the problems with software updates, which were plagued with their own issues as initial fixes noticeably slowed down some devices. After nearly a year of public effort to fix the problems, the issues haven't gone away, as researchers discovered more variants of Spectre and Meltdown in May and November.
ZTE, which is perhaps best known for making budget-friendly smartphones, was caught selling equipment with US technology to Iran and North Korea, running afoul of US sanctions. Perhaps even worse, ZTE apparently chose not to fire employees who had helped with the company's illegal scheme. So, in April, the Commerce Department issued a ban on ZTE buying US technology or services for seven years, effectively forcing the Chinese tech giant to shut down. That was, until Trump tweeted support for ZTE, kickstarting a process that effectively undid the Commerce Department's decision. The decision surprised lawmakers, including some within the president's party.
To call bitcoin a mess would be an insult to messes. What began as a cryptocurrency with wild-eyed plans to become the world's primary way of shuffling money around has since descended into madness. Prices on bitcoin exchanges (yes, there are many bitcoin exchanges, and there are many different cryptocurrencies) have fluctuated wildly. Bitcoin itself rose to more than $19,500 per bitcoin at the end of last year before falling to around $5,500 now. Still, bitcoin and the blockchain technology that helps keep track of how much of the cryptocurrency everyone owns have become a joke in the tech industry. There are so many blockchain-based startups that it's become a meme. Meanwhile, speculators hoping to make a quick buck off bitcoin have a new moniker: bitcoin bros.
While social networks and startups make up the majority of tech turkeys, the industry's biggest players had their own moments. Apple's came at the end of last year, when it turned out that an old conspiracy theory about the company slowing down people's phones at the launch of new ones turned out to be true. Kinda. It turned out Apple's software does slow down phones when it senses batteries aren't performing well to prevent the phones from randomly crashing. Considering this has been a long-running conspiracy theory, the controversy became a firestorm. Apple apologized for not being forthright, and offered to replace everyone's -- everyone's -- batteries for $29, instead of charging them the typical $79.
Over the past few years, the tech industry has avoided "vaporware," products that get announced but never see the light of day. This wasn't always the case; Lady Gaga and Polaroid unveiled plans for glasses with built-in cameras that still haven't been released. Apple, for its part, rarely participated in this practice, announcing products only shortly before they would be available. But the AirPower charging mat may be different. AirPower was announced alongside the iPhone X in 2017, promising to effortlessly charge your iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPod wireless headphones on a single mat. A year later, the company hasn't said a thing. The rumor mill can't decide whether the project's alive or dead, but if we ever start an offshoot Tech Zombies series, don't be surprised to find it there.
In May, CNET had the exclusive on Google's next-generation AI, a program called Duplex that sounds crazily lifelike, down to the verbal tics we all have like "umm" and "uhh." Google demonstrated this technology being used to make reservations at a local restaurant, playing recorded examples, navigating accents and experiencing many other obstacles you'd expect a computer to trip up on. At first blush, you might have expected some sort of Bond villain to invent this Duplex. But the controversy came from a bit our reporter Rich Nieva picked up on in his initial story: Google wasn't disclosing when we were talking to a computer or a human being. This became a PR headache for what otherwise was going to be a whirlwind announcement about how advanced Google's AI had become. A few days later, we reported that Google intends to make clear you're talking to a robot after all. So, no need to worry if the Terminator's on the other end of the line, pretending to be your stepmom. Yet.
Oh, you thought you were done with Washington talk? Well, we could be, except Google screwed up big time. The company decided not to send its CEO Sundar Pichai to Capitol Hill for testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee alongside Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in September. Senators were furious, and didn't hide it either. Committee staffers set up a chair and put a name tag "Google" on the table in front of it, giving senators all the ingredients to grandstand on Google's absence. Of course, the event played second fiddle to the initial round of hearings over Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court.
Google+ had a more promising start than some earlier Google social network flops like Google Wave and Orkut. Still, its ending went the way of those earlier efforts when Google unveiled plans to shut the social network down because of a vulnerability that exposed data of a half million people. Google+ debuted in 2011 with great fanfare, a project intended to match Facebook's explosive growth of the time. Google extended Google+'s tentacles into everything from Gmail and Google Photos to search results and Android in an effort to draw existing Google users into the fold. Still, it all fizzled and it became a cliché to call the service a ghost town. Any remaining non-ghosts have until Aug. 19, 2019, to decamp.
The pile-on began as soon as the news of the Google+ data exposure arrived. Google was "tardy" to share information and it was guilty of "failing to disclose" the exposure, analysts and cybersecurity reporters said. Some senators called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Google's decision not to disclose it until The Wall Street Journal caught wind of it. It's easy to take potshots at Google for hushing up a big problem, but the issue isn't necessarily so simple given that there wasn't any evidence of any actual data breach. Alex Stamos, the former computer security leader at Yahoo and Facebook, said disclosure requirements could discourage efforts to hunt for the holes in the first place.
For the first time, a self-driving car in full autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian. Uber was testing the vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, at 10 p.m. on a Sunday in March when it hit a woman at 38 mph as she was walking her bike across a dark street. After preliminary investigations by Uber, Arizona police, the National Transportation Safety Board and the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it was initially concluded that Uber had disabled emergency braking maneuvers in the vehicle. Uber halted its self-driving car program at the time of the crash and it has yet to reinstate testing of its vehicles in full autonomous mode. The company said in a statement that self-driving cars will "ultimately make transportation safer, more efficient and more affordable," and that it remains committed to making that future a reality.
By the fall, many people were offering this unsolicited advice to Elon Musk: Stop tweeting. And it's hard not to see why. His tweets have always been controversial, particularly when they're critical of female journalists, inspiring his army of trollish followers to harass and threaten them. But three episodes in particular have gotten Musk gobbling like few others this year.
Musk loves to tweet announcements about Tesla. He's announced features for the cars on Twitter, such as autopilot, and he's discussed production successes and shortfalls. Earlier this year, he tweeted about staying at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, past his birthday in an effort to eke out a goal of producing 5,000 Model 3 sedans in a week. That last bit though is what's landed him in hot water with the Department of Justice, which is apparently investigating him over statements about when Tesla would be able to produce that many cars per week, and whether he or Tesla had committed fraud.
Over the summer, 12 boys and a soccer coach were lost, found and then rescued from a deadly cave collapse in Thailand. The whole drama, which played out over more than a week, captured the world's attention. Musk also prompted a sideshow to the drama, asking his teams at SpaceX, a reusable rocket company that he runs, to help invent a small submarine to get the victims out. It wasn't used, but Musk took exception to a comment that his submarine was a "PR stunt." Musk took to Twitter to call the commenter, among other things, a "pedo guy." Musk eventually apologized, but then revived the unsubstantiated claim, leading the man to eventually sue.
The biggest turkey of Musk's year though was his tweet in early August, saying he was "considering" taking Tesla private, and had enough funds secured to buy the company at $420 per share. (He said he arrived at the number by rounding up from $419 per share, but it's hard not to see it as a pot joke.) The Securities and Exchange Commission got involved when it turned out the funding wasn't secured, issuing a subpoena as it investigated whether he had "intentionally misled investors." In September, Tesla and Musk settled with the SEC, paying a combined $40 million fine. Musk also agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla, appoint two new independent directors to the company's board, and create a committee of independent directors to oversee Musk's communications (ie: tweets.)
One of Silicon Valley's most anticipated courtroom dramas fizzled after just four days. Uber went head-to-head with Waymo, Google's self-driving car unit, in February to battle over whether the ride-hailing company stole self-driving car tech. Over the four days of testimony, roughly two dozen witnesses gave details on everything from "cheat codes" to Uber's aggressive business culture. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick took the stand and confessed to having said things like, "The golden time is over. It's war time" regarding Uber's rivalry with Google, and "second place is first loser." In the end, Waymo wasn't able to prove Uber actually used the allegedly stolen files, so it agreed to settle with the ride-hailing company for $245 million.
What started as a compromise by Apple and a startup called Essential to allow bigger screens without losing the all-important front-facing selfie camera has turned into a bonafide trend. The smartphone notch has taken over the tech industry, showing up in phones from Google's Pixel 3 to LG's G7 and OnePlus's 6. Call it ugly, call it lazy. But it's the new normal. Even Samsung, which made fun of the iPhone X notch in one of its ads last year, is rumored to be adopting the technology in its future phones.
We saw computers beat humans at chess in 1997, outdo humans at Jeopardy in 2011 and vanquish the world's best human players of the ancient game of Go in 2017. This year, a computer edged out a human competitor in a far more nuanced, open-ended competition: debate. A human audience judged two debates, concluding a human debater more persuasive on the matter of subsidizing space exploration but giving the win to IBM Debater when it comes to the use of telemedicine. None of the opponents were prepared in advance, but the AI had the benefit of thousands of news articles and scholarly publications. Dr. Noam Slonim of IBM Research said the technology could help people "make better-informed, more fact-based decisions." When it came to winning the debate, it probably helped that Project Debater cracked some jokes too: "I can't say it makes my blood boil, because I have no blood." We're doomed.
Without forewarning to lawmakers or residents, thousands of electric scooters were dropped onto city streets across the US this year. Some people took to the dockless, rentable, motorized vehicles immediately, embracing them as a convenient and cheap way to get around town. Others hated them, calling the scooter phenomenon Scootergeddon, Scooterpocalypse and Scooter Wars, among other snide names. Some expressed rage by tossing the scooters into trash cans, hanging them from trees and even smearing them with feces. Cities from Austin to San Francisco to Beverly Hills temporarily banned the vehicles, while regulators in other cities have grappled with how to create laws around the new form of transportation. As the legal issues continue to shake out, scooter companies just keep adding more and more cities to their rosters.
If you bought plane tickets from Delta, tools from Sears or electronics from Best Buy during the fall last year, your name, address and credit card number may have been exposed on their websites. You probably know the drill by now, but it turns out retailers once again failed to protect our data. This time, the breach came from 7.ai, which offers a chat service on many websites that lets you ask important questions, like if those pants you love come in mauve. Separately, Macy's and Bloomingdale's were hacked by an "unauthorized third party" who managed to obtain usernames and passwords and credit card numbers.
This wasn't a good year for the Chinese tech company Huawei. In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee reported that Huawei and ZTE posed a threat to national security, kickstarting a series of events that led US companies to be banned from buying Huawei products. Then, this year, the FCC proposed new rules that would bar broadband companies from buying telecom equipment from companies, like Huawei, that pose a national security threat. The heads of the FBI, CIA and NSA all expressed concern about Huawei and ZTE, so it's no surprise the companies have had a tough year in the US.
Here's a blast from the past. Palm, which appeared to be finished after then-owner HP shut it down in 2011, has come back. The company that made those old phones is gone, but a new San Francisco startup licensed the venerable name to create a device small enough that it fits in the palm of your hand (get it?). It costs $349, measures just 3.3-inches long, and -- here's the crazy part -- it isn't really a phone. No, this piece of tech is a stripped down Android-based device that works as a companion to your phone, but with less functionality. Yes, we've gotten to the point where your phone needs a "phone" of its own.
Microsoft's Windows team needs to take a breath. For the past two years, Windows 10 updates have had serious issues. Last year, people with specific types of chips in their PCs had trouble even installing the Fall Creators Update, which promised support for mixed reality headsets, among other things. It didn't get better this year, with the creatively named "Windows 10 October 2018" update that deleted files from some computers. And not just any files -- some people reported losing items from their pictures and documents folders. Alas, Microsoft halted the update, did some coding work, and then began re-releasing it in mid-October. Here's hoping next year goes a little smoother.
In October, you may have seen an ad from Verizon that's pretty much a typical tear-jerker about Verizon technology making it possible for firefighters to do their jobs. "When disaster strikes, that's when your communication service can really become your lifeline," a Verizon spokesperson says into the camera. You might dismiss it as another typical corporate ad, until you hear the backstory: In August, Verizon admitted it slowed down firefighters' data connections during deadly 2017 fires in California. It was inexcusable, and something Verizon quickly apologized for. "Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations," the company said. "In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake."
Three years ago, Theranos was one of the quintessential tech industry success stories. CEO Elizabeth Holmes hated needles, so as a student at Stanford she looked for people who could help her invent a new technology to do blood tests from a pinprick on a finger. The company that sprung up around her was soon worth $9 billion. Sadly, it appears to all have been a fraud, which was exposed by The Wall Street Journal in late 2015. By September 2018, Holmes was settling SEC fraud charges, while the company laid off its staff and prepared to sell its remaining assets to pay off creditors.
In 2015, tech companies and advocates scored a major victory when the FCC voted to enact new rules effectively making net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, as the law of the land. But that was under President Barack Obama. By 2017, Trump had appointed a new FCC commissioner who held a new vote at the end of the year, overturning the Obama-era rules. Where we go from here is uncertain. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court effectively left intact a lower court ruling that the FCC could vote again to enact net neutrality rules in the future. In the meantime, several states have passed their own net neutrality laws, and there's talk of a possible bill before Congress. Either way, it clearly isn't over yet.
Airbnb went to war with New York City this year. The fracas started in May after the city's comptroller Scott Stringer published a report saying the company was responsible for nearly 10 percent of rent hikes from 2009 to 2016. Airbnb went on the defensive. It paid for a seven-figure ad campaign that said Stringer put out a "false report misleading New Yorkers." Stringer stood his ground. Then, in June, the New York City council introduced a bill aimed at curtailing certain short-term rentals in the city. Again, Airbnb struck back doing all it could to stop the bill. It held protests in front of City Hall, backed a lawsuit against the city and authored a report detailing which city council members reportedly received campaign contributions from the hotel industry. It was all to no avail: The city council passed the bill in July with a 45-0 unanimous vote.
Ceaseless sign-ons are a pain, so who could object when Google added a couple of features to its Chrome web browser to ease our life of logins? Privacy advocates, that's who. The first feature logged you into Chrome, too, when you logged into a Google website, such as Gmail or YouTube. The second feature conveniently resurrected Google tracking text files, called cookies, even if you tried to delete them. The combination made it easier for Google to track your online behavior and amass a profile for targeting ads. Faced with the backlash, Google watered down the first change a little, letting you disable the feature if you wanted (but really, who looks that deep into Chrome's advanced privacy settings?) and ditched the second altogether.
Microsoft under its current CEO Satya Nadella is a different place than the cutthroat competitor of a decade or two ago. Still, we got a taste of the bad old days when the company tried out a Windows 10 intervention to steer people away from installing browsers that weren't Microsoft's own Edge. When you tried to install Chrome, Firefox, Opera or Vivaldi, a dialog box popped up that read, "You already have Microsoft Edge -- the safer, faster browser for Windows 10." It also suggested that you "open Microsoft Edge." Critics piled on and Microsoft yanked the feature from the test version of Windows 10 in a matter of days.
Shortly after Tim Cook became CEO of Apple in 2011, he vowed to double-down on secrecy. It's become such a laughable idea that it's a meme in the tech industry now. And ironically, in addition to people in the know blowing the surprise of the iPhone X design, the remade iPad Pro and new computers, Apple's own software has spoiled the surprise several times as well. This year, for example, a version of Apple's iOS software contained clues of the new iPad's design before it was announced, including features like Face ID unlock in any orientation.
As bad a year as it was for Apple's team keeping secrets, Google had it much worse. One employee literally left a test version of its Pixel 3 phone in the back of a taxi. Then, the device went on sale in Hong Kong, days before Google's big reveal. The whole episode became a running joke among tech bloggers, who were left wondering what they didn't already know before walking into the company's October announcement.
Nothing makes you feel more nickeled and dimed than when a company starts charging for something it used to give away for free. Enter Apple, which stopped including a lightning-to-headphone jack adapter in the box for its latest iPhones, the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR. The company had been including them with new iPhones as a consolation prize since it phased out the headphone jack in 2016 (#courage). Now, people who want to use a headphone jack with their new iPhone have to pony up $9 to buy the dongle from Apple.
When you think massive data breach, it shouldn't take long for Yahoo's name to come up. It's home to the largest data breaches in history, affecting 3.5 billion accounts in two attacks that spanned 2013 and 2014. Yahoo disclosed both breaches in 2016, though in retrospect it low-balled how many people were affected at the time. In 2018, it came time for Yahoo to pay the piper. The cost: $85 million and at least two years of credit monitoring services for 200 million people who had personal information, such as names and phone numbers, stolen. Verizon, which bought Yahoo last year, paid $25 million, while the remaining was paid from the parts of Yahoo the telecom giant didn't buy.
It sounded too good to be true: A $10 per month subscription that allows you to watch a movie a day, every day, in most theaters around the US. Considering many tickets cost at least $3 more than that just to see one movie, this was an obvious steal. Well, it turns out MoviePass was built on a gym membership-like business plan, where the people who sign up but don't use the service subsidize those who do. That seemed to work OK for the first six years it was in business and charging initially $50 a month. But then the company lowered its rates to $10 a month and things went nuts. More than 150,000 people subscribed in just two days, according to Deadline. But unexpectedly, many of those people aggressively used their benefits, causing the company to change its business plan in public, several times. Today, it still charges $10 a month, but you can only watch three movies a month, and there are blackouts. The whole ordeal became the talk of the internet for the summer, which may have hurt MoviePass' brand. The stock price for Helios and Matheson Analytics, its parent company, has crashed from around $1,800 per share at the beginning of the year to hovering around 2 cents a share since August. On the plus side, MoviePass pushed other companies like AMC and Cinemark to respond with their own offerings.