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The Year in Technology Policy: It Wasn’t All That Bad!

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

Last year, looking at 2014’s changes to the rules and regulations relating to technology, I had a distinct sense of exasperated futility. Perhaps I’m cracking under the strain of preparing for yet another CES, but I don’t feel that way this year. Maybe, just maybe, things actually got a bit better on the tech-policy front in 2015.

Net neutrality

In the spring, the Federal Communications Commission enacted sweeping regulations to prevent Internet providers from blocking or slowing certain sites or apps. What’s surprising is how little has happened since then.

ISPs did not all put down their tools in protest and stop investing in their networks. In fact, two of the biggest — AT&T and Comcast — ended the year bragging about how they’re expanding their gigabit Internet services.

(Unfortunately, these new high-speed ventures rarely involve competing with other incumbent providers. And as the FCC’s latest broadband-survey results show, the phone-based DSL you can usually get anywhere has become increasingly uncompetitive with faster cable and fiber.)

Your FCC commissioners, saving the Internet. (Photo: fcc.gov)

The FCC, meanwhile, refrained from hauling in any ISPs for extended interrogations. But that may yet happen: T-Mobile’s BingeOn unlimited video streaming downgrades the resolution not only of sites the carrier says are included in this feature but also of such outsiders as YouTube. The FCC has smiled on previous “zero-rating” schemes to exempt some kinds of data (such as video) from data limits, but this might be a little too cutesy for its tastes.

TV bundles crumble

The FCC’s other big move this year was to tell Comcast “not gonna happen” often enough for the nation’s biggest cable firm to give up on buying the second-biggest cable company, Time Warner Cable. Things did not get much better for Comcast after that; its fellow TV providers didn’t have a great year either.

Viewers continued to drop expensive TV bundles, and the companies selling them found it increasingly difficult to pretend that changes were not in order. Comcast and Verizon responded with cheaper offerings that, on closer inspection, didn’t actually save viewers much money. The more compelling alternatives for cord-cutters remain online video offerings like Dish Network’s groundbreaking Sling TV, which don’t have to protect existing pay-TV businesses — and more should arrive in 2016.

These developments may not rank as good news if you work for a pay-TV firm. But if you’re tired of paying for dozens of channels you don’t actually watch (to get the few you do), they represent a long-overdue liberalization of viewing choices.

Surveillance and encryption

Progress was not as obvious when it came to the government’s ability to eyeball our data and our ability to stop that — and other eavesdropping — via encryption.

In June, Congress finally passed the USA Freedom Act, a law that curbs the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance. It was an appropriate and overdue response to Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the NSA’s overreach.

NSA HQ. (Photo: NSA)

At the same time, the widespread deployment of strong encryption in consumer devices like iPhones helped make our information safer against hacking and break-in attempts. Law-enforcement and national-security types haven’t all been happy about it, but there’s no law saying you must conduct your correspondence in an interception-friendly manner.

The advent of the 2016 presidential campaign and a rash of terrorist attacks, however, reopened the debate. Some Republican candidates seem to think that encryption itself is a threat and called for the restoration of the NSA’s old powers.

Unfortunately, the middle-ground view, heard from people in both parties, seems to think that, if we ask the tech industry nicely enough, it will square the circle and invent encryption that stays secure until a police investigator gets a judge to order it unlocked. Sorry, but that’s just not how encryption works.

Congress ended the year by voting to approve a cybersecurity bill that critics said would let information about vulnerabilities shared by companies with the government flow to the NSA and be used to investigate unrelated crimes. The passage of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act did not follow a full debate over its merits; late in the game, it was folded into the must-pass omnibus spending bill.

Unfinished business

Other tech-policy issues will have to wait for 2016 — or beyond — for some sort of fix.

• Congress once again failed to pass a bill making patent trolling a less attractive business model. That means that we’ll likely continue to see businesses that actually make things hit with bogus claims of patent infringement by companies that exist solely to shake them down.

• Social networks — especially Twitter — still have work to do in cracking down on abuse by misogynistic creeps, terrorist mouthpieces, and other online scum. This isn’t a matter of free speech: Places like Twitter and Reddit are businesses running communities. They can make their own rules, and they need to think harder about how those rules might break down in practice.

• Then again, the power we’ve granted to platforms like Facebook and Apple to fix other online ailments should be grounds for deep unease. Facebook’s Instant Articles make for lightning-fast reading, but as a journalist I don’t want the social network becoming my publisher. Similarly, Apple’s support for ad-blocking plug-ins can justly punish pushy sites. But if it leads other publishers to develop their own mobile apps — immune to ad blockers but still subject to Apple’s app-curation — it’s not healthy for the Web overall.

• Finally, we’ve gone another year without addressing the way the Digital Millennium Copyright Act lets copyright holders ban tinkering with apps, gadgets, and even cars. Instead, we let the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office allocate exemptions to the DMCA’s “anti-circumvention” rule every three years. 2015’s grab bag of exemptions represented yet another masterstroke of inconsistency. 2018’s will be no better.

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