As the year draws to a close, it’s time to review the top tech policy stories of 2013.
(1) NSA Surveillance. The most important story by far was the revelations about the scope and scale of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency and allied services. It took a major leak of documents by Edward Snowden to enable this conversation. Those of us in the independent security community were not suprised that the NSA had these capabilities in the abstract, but we were surprised at the scale and aggressiveness with which the agency has been eavesdropping on people all around the world, and even on Americans on U.S. soil. Snowden’s documents allowed us to push past the superficial denials, quasi-denials, and occasional lies that had shielded the agency’s practices for years. The implications of this story will take years to unfold.
(2) Aaron Swartz. Aaron’s death at the beginning of the year was a kick in the gut to many of us. We lost a thoughtful and talented activist who saw the best that technology could enable, due to an overzealous prosecutor wielding overly harsh laws, enabled by Aaron’s own bad judgement. If any good came from this tragedy, it was in the soul-searching at MIT and elsewhere about how to reconcile technical creativity with the desires of an increasingly powerful state.
(3) Bitcoin. The cryptocurrency hit the mainstream this year, with governments, investors, and academics all trying to understand its dynamics and implications. This story too will take years to unfold. Whether or not Bitcoin survives in the long run, it has opened the door to a new era of technically enabled currencies.
(4) Drones and robots. From drones to self-driving cars, this is an issue that began to hit the mainstream in 2013. Expect it to move higher on the list in upcoming years.
(5) 3-D printing. A bit farther from the mainstream policy discussion, but also likely to rise on the list as the technology continues to mature.
(6) Commercial privacy. Although it was pushed down the list by the attention lavished on government intrusions on privacy, the issues around commercial data collection continued a slow boil this year.
(7) Fairness and algorithms. Concern increased about the effect of complex data-driven algorithms on people, especially around fairness issues such as the thin line between personalization and redlining, and questions of digital due process.
(8) Cell phone unlocking. Consumers insisted on the ability to unlock their phones, and the policy community listened. The big question going forward is whether this is the beginning of a trend away from regulating consumers’ use of the technologies they have purchased.
(9) The TPP process and trade negotiations generally. Pressure mounted on the U.S. government to provide some transparency into the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, and more generally to be more open about trade negotiations and to refrain from using trade agreements as a backdoor path to creating new restrictive intellectual property laws.