More than any time in history, 2012 is the year the world of Washington and the world of the Web became intimately aware of each other, and inexorably intertwined. Some of Washington’s changes were bad for Web users and the Internet at large. Some were very good. Here is a quick look back at the big federal government-related events that shaped the Web as it moves into 2013.
The effects of the now-infamous Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) are not so much notable for how Washington changed the world of technology, but how the technology world changed Washington. The defeat of SOPA in January came as a result of the Internet – its companies and its users – rallying behind a piece of legislation that could have had dire consequences for the digital realm in which we all now live. Our response was so devastating that “getting SOPA’d” became a thing to avoid on Capitol Hill. And that influenced the ways in which Congress tried to address Web issues over the rest of the year. SOPA showed Web users that we can, in fact, make a difference in this democracy. Here’s to hoping the momentum of this newly invigorated, connected constituency can continue through 2013.
The Federal Trade Commission’s update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is perhaps the most substantial policy tweak of the year, as far as Web legislation is concerned. The FTC managed to add in new protections against the tracking of children’s online activities, while not creating massive lobbyist backlash from Internet companies. (Oh, they complained, but not too much – they also got some things they wanted.) Some say the changes were too much; others, not enough. But one thing is for certain: Parents now have more tools at their disposal for keeping their kids’ identities under control.
3. Website seizures
The U.S. federal government has been on a website seizure spree this year. On top of the very public takedown of Megaupload by the FBI, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security has seized hundreds of domains over the past year. In July, ICE had taken over 839 websites accused of copyright infringement and other infractions over the the life of the two-year-old “Operation in Our Sites” (PDF). By November, that number had nearly doubled to 1,630. Not only that, but the feds also claimed to have the right to seize any domain with a .com, .net, .org, .us, .cc, .tv, or .name URL. Going into 2013, we can only assume the number of seizures will skyrocket even higher, risking a confidence free fall for any Web company that skims the line between legal and not.
4. ‘Privacy by Design’
Back in March, the FTC announced a major initiative to reign in the out-of-control collection of Web users’ personal data. Dubbed “Privacy by Design,” the plan outlined a long-term effort by the federal government to begin regulating the ways we are tracked online, and the companies doing the tracking. And earlier this month, we saw the first real fruits of this measure, with the FTC demanding that nine major data brokers – Acxiom, Corelogic, Datalogix, EBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, Peekyou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future – hand over what they know about us to the feds. It’s the first step in what is sure to be a long process of reestablishing our right to privacy on the Web.
5. UN takeover shut down
Years from now, we will likely look back on December 13 as the day the Internet changed. This is the date when the U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer refused to sign an international treaty that would have handed over certain powers to govern the way the Internet works to other world governments, many of which seek to impose totalitarian rules on the global ‘Net. It was an unpopular move with much of the world, notably nations that believe the U.S. has too much influence over the Internet. (A valid argument.) But it was a necessary one to ensure that the Web remains as open and free as it is today – at least for now. In the mean time, however, some believe that we have entered in to a “digital cold war,” as the Economist calls it, with the U.S. and its allies on one side, and authoritarian regimes on another. This divisive power split could affect the nature of the global Internet for years – even decades – to come.