Please tell me I can wake up now. 2021 can’t come fast enough.
If you’d told me in December of 2019 what lay ahead I likely wouldn’t have believed you. The threats on the horizon then are all around us now, and a few important ones we didn’t expect have done nothing to lower stress levels. There is universal anger, vaguely focused on tech, while simultaneously tech is eating its own. What went wrong?
The Alliance team started the year with an ambitious travel schedule (remember travel?) that included all the U.S. and European developer gatherings. A month later we were working from home and stockpiling toilet paper. Policymakers in the EU had a bold plan for repeating the regulatory “success” that was GDPR by setting de-facto standards for AI and data – and ultimately big platform behavior. The U.S. was looking inward; focused on impeachment and tribal warfare. Our focus was on Brussels and trying to ensure a single set of rules for developers on either side of the Atlantic. Our biggest U.S. challenge was the (still-pending) Google V. Oracle Supreme Court case where we’re defending free and open APIs.
Developers responded early, building apps to fill the little potholes that social isolation uncovered. What stores have sanitizer on the shelf? Where do seniors need meals delivered? And of course, contact tracing. You did some great work, all the while worrying about the future and adapting to a 100% digital life. We cursed, we streamed, we discovered just how bad video staff calls could be. But we adapted. And for a short period of time, the world woke up to realize the value of the internet in a lock-down world.
The honeymoon was short-lived. As the world moved online, it brought with it further tribalism, fraud, gossip, and hate. Governments noticed, and policy priorities shifted in recognition of the role the internet plays during a crisis. This includes the determination of whose job it was to separate the signal from the noise. We engaged early as Brussels stepped up efforts on content moderation and filtering – but why?
One theme that runs throughout 2019 and 2020 is the growing divergence between EU digital laws and those in the U.S. For developers, diverging rules mean that you need to code for two different markets where before you coded for a single international one. In the EU, hate speech is forbidden. In the U.S., free speech is anchored in the Constitution. Our task was to find a middle ground to avoid cutting developer markets in two. This fight will continue in 2021, but it doesn’t look good. Data transfers between the U.S. and EU are in their final days unless someone on either side blinks. Our advice for 2021 is to plan for two separate markets and two HQ’s to oversee them.
And so we’ve arrived. The rhetorical war dividing the U.S. has moved online, and so naturally, the generals in charge are blaming the internet for providing a battlefield. Policymakers in both the U.S. and EU have identified Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft as the root of our societal ills and are ramping up court cases and regulations to reign them in, break them up and bleed them of their excess riches. How should developers feel about this?
Like them or hate them, these big platforms are deeply woven into how we do business – how apps get to market, how new devices emerge, and how new tools are developed. They can be aloof and greedy, but they know us and they know they need us. I’ll submit that developers need them, too. In 2021 we will all need to learn how to make money as targeted advertising comes under attack. We will collectively need to clean house and tighten up our data practices as Europe’s privacy rules are matched by U.S. authorities. We will need to teach users they can trust us to do the right thing. We will need to learn how to succeed as the internet fragments around us. With these challenges, we can either choose sides and fight each other, or we can reflect a little and collectively work to do better by the users we serve. We’ll be sharing more on what we’re already doing here in the months ahead.
As 2020 comes to a close there is no doubt the winter we’re in will be a dark one. Developers have played an important role in keeping us and our families connected, safe, and functional so far. Many of us are the lucky ones that can adapt to remote work and school. Our skills are still in high demand and our services are consumed from a safe distance. Our industry is under threat, however, and cataclysmic change is coming our way. Our weakness is our lack of a collective voice. If we sit on the sidelines while the giant players of the internet can fight their own battles, we can’t complain. Even if the outcome destroys much of what we value alongside what we’d just as soon toss.
My resolution for 2021 is the same one that was interrupted by 2020, which was mostly sideways and out of control. More outreach to the developer community. More time spent listening to developer voices. Until 2021 arrives though, let me encourage you to take heart in our important role, prepare for the challenges to come, and in the weeks ahead take some time to reach out to those around you that might be struggling.
I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season and new year,
Developers Alliance CEO/President