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Tech Policy 2014: Mistakes Were Made

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

I’ve tried to keep you current on major technology policy developments over the course of 2014. There was a lot of maddening news, but a lot changed in the topics I covered after I wrote about them. Occasionally, for the better.

Here are the biggest policy issues that affect how you use technology, and where they stand now.

The scoop on government snoops
Ever since Edward Snowden leaked the extent of government bulk surveillance online, tech companies (including our publisher, Yahoo) have been scrambling to ensure that the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies can’t sneak into their networks quite so easily. 

That’s good: Your email is no longer the equivalent of a postcard that anybody can read, thanks to mail providers scrambling messages in transit with a standard called TLS. Also, encryption that not even Apple or Google can unlock keeps your phone’s data safe from thieves.

Many more tech companies have decided that standing up for customers against government curiosity might help earn your trust. This year’s version of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Who Has Your Back?” report shows amazing progress from 2011 and 2012 in areas like posting “transparency reports” about law-enforcement and national-security queries.

Alas, the big telecom firms, the companies that collect some of the most sensitive data about us, have been the slowest to get with the program. 

One, Verizon Wireless, also got caught adding tracking headers to much of its customers’ Web traffic — with no opt-out allowed — that made it easy for other sites to follow those people around the Web. And while AT&T had experimented with this tracking, it abandoned that project while Verizon arrogantly marches on.

Congress, meanwhile, did nothing to curb the spy agencies. The closest it got to meaningful reform: 42 senators voted for the USA Freedom Act in November, while 58 voted against, killing the measure for this year. 

A deluge of data breaches
Your data was also threatened by inattentive or inept security at major retailers — Home Depot, Target, and Staples, to name a few — that let crooks copy credit card and other records. Online, we saw weak security defaults at Apple’s iCloud service allow a bout of hackings of celebrity accounts, while a few high-profile startups ignored warnings of vulnerabilities and got predictably “pwned.”

You can strengthen your cloud services by adopting two-step verification, but doing the same for credit cards isn’t so easy. You can hope that your issuer soon ships you new cards with “EMV” smart-chip security (me, I’m still waiting) or you can pay more safely in stores with your phone. Apple Pay represented a breakthrough in that area, combining security with simplicity — and threatening some retailers’ own, less-elegant phone-payment schemes.

Companies that ignored basic advice may yet pay for it — in December, a court declined to dismiss a lawsuit by several banks against Target. This would also be a good time for Congress to finally set nationwide standards for disclosure of data breaches … but I suspect it won’t.

(Thinkstock)

Imaginary intellectual property
The creation of new kinds of intellectual-property rights by government became a trans-Atlantic sport in 2014. 

Here, the Supreme Court shut down the Aereo TV service for using an Internet link instead of a wire to connect a viewer’s screen to a TV antenna … because, well, it sorta looked like a cable service. Aereo filed for bankruptcy in November. Earlier, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ignored decades of precedent by extending copyright protection to the way programs talk to other programs.

There, the European Court of Justice invented the well-meaning but fundamentally unworkable “right to be forgotten” that is supposed to let you remove yourself from search engine results. EU legislatures tried to force Google to pay newspaper publishers for showing the briefest summaries of their content and in return sending them massive amounts of traffic. 

When Spain passed a law requiring these payments — even banning publishers from declining them — Google responded in December by closing Google News there and booting Spanish news sites from that index everywhere

We did see some sanity in intellectual property return in June. The Supreme Court rejected a patent that claimed an existing business practice was novel because it was done with computers. And the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals finally took the hint and threw out a bunch of software patents for a change. That’s good, since a bipartisan patent-reform bill died in the Senate in May

Net neutrality
The “net neutrality” debate — over whether the government should ban your Internet provider from giving preferential treatment to the data from particular companies — kept lobbyists (and tech-policy pundits) in business all year.

First net neutrality looked doomed after Verizon won a lawsuit challenging some fairly meek Federal Communications Commission rules. When the FCC responded by proposing rules that looked even weaker, comedian John Oliver denounced them in an epic rant.

Finally, the Obama administration suggested the FCC return to treating Internet providers as “common carrier” services, the way it did until 2002, and use that to craft strong net-neutrality rules. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) vented on Twitter that the idea was “Obamacare for the Internet” — but if he and like-minded colleagues vote to stop the FCC from going down that path, you can expect a presidential veto to preserve Congress’ record of tech-policy futility.  

Pay-TV pains
Net-neutrality advocates found themselves with a convenient adversary: big cable. And the foe kept getting bigger, mostly in the form of Comcast proposing to buy Time Warner Cable. Comcast’s “Hey, it’s not like you can choose between us and TWC today” sales pitch was less persuasive than hoped; as the government approval process for the merger keeps getting extended, Comcast’s chances look shakier than they did in January.

Nonetheless, the pay-TV business as we’ve known it appears in more danger than ever, thanks to the growing ranks of “cord cutters” (like me) who don’t get cable or satellite TV — and the move by HBO to recognize reality and start letting people pay for online-only viewing.

Cutting the cord also liberates customers from Big Cable’s poor taste in onscreen and remote-control interfaces. The cable box, unfortunately, got a little more entrenched in December when Congress passed a bill that will free cable operators from using the CableCARD technology they invented (and which TiVo boxes rely on for access) in their own hardware. That law directs the FCC to create a new standard for pay-TV reception that would work on cable and satellite alike; get to work, FCC.

A widening wireless world
If you want to see what effective tech policy can do, then look at the wireless market. The feds kept telling Sprint to quit dreaming about buying T-Mobile, and in August Sprint gave up on that quest. That, in turn, freed T-Mobile to continue its enjoyable campaign to upend the rest of the business with moves like letting subscribers bank unused data for use in other months

And a grassroots campaign to re-legalize unlocking phones for use on other services led Congress to — I know, this sounds crazy — do something customer-friendly by passing a bill protecting the practice. That ruling is only good for 2015. But, hey, it’s something.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.