The 4 best developments in tech policy in 2017

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
A 3D-printed Facebook like button is seen in front of the Facebook logo, in this illustration taken October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

2017 hasn’t exactly drawn many clicks of our collective Like button—especially if you look at the way the rules of technology have treated customers.

The Trump administration began it by rushing to abandon broadband-privacy rules and ended it with the FCC’s vote to scrap net-neutrality regulations. In between, Congress continued doing nothing on key privacy and security issues while social networks took way too long to address an epidemic of trolling and abuse by Russian operatives, neo-Nazis and worse.

But 2017 could have been a whole lot worse. Here are a few bullets we dodged this year.

Telecom consolidation didn’t go crazy

At the start of this year, it seemed inevitable that the fumbling flirtation between Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) that had gone on since 2014 would yield a corporate union that Trump’s regulators would find reasons to approve.

But the two companies could never nail down a deal and called the whole thing off in November. That spared their employees and customers years of merger-induced turmoil and kept the U.S. wireless market intensely competitive.

With few exceptions, shoppers for wired broadband don’t get nearly as many options. But here, too, things could have been worse: Wall Street kept handing out such anti-competitive advice as a Citibank (C) analyst’s fever-dream proposal that Verizon (VZ) buy Comcast (CMCSA) for $215 billion. We can all be thankful they ignored that suggestion.

(Verizon is Yahoo Finance’s parent company, thanks to a merger that did conclude this year: Verizon’s $4.48 billion purchase of Yahoo.)

Cord cutting increased

Where analyst types once disagreed over whether people cancelling traditional TV subscriptions was just a recession-induced fad, the argument has now moved over how fast cord cutting is happening. In the third quarter, for example, MoffettNathanson estimated that 872,000 subscribers fled cable and satellite services—which sounds outright optimistic compared to Kagan’s estimate of 1.2 million.

These viewers aren’t giving up on the idea of paying for TV entirely. Instead, their next stop has been a streaming TV service like Sling TV, Hulu, Sony’s PlayStation Vue, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) YouTube TV and AT&T’s (T) DirecTV Now. These cheaper “over the top” services (so named for how they ride on your broadband connection) still miss some local broadcasters and regional sports networks, but they’re dramatically cheaper and don’t make subscribers pay to rent a cable or satellite box.

Strong encryption stayed legal and got easier

Politicians and pundits kept calling on tech companies to square the cryptographic circle by providing strongly encrypted storage that law enforcement can still unlock with a warrant (spoiler alert: doing one undermines the other). But a year after the fight between the FBI and Apple (AAPL) over whether the company should tamper with the locks on an iPhone 5 used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, nobody moved to compel Apple or Google to compromise security.

And with each new iPhone or Android phone that ships with encrypted storage that can only be unlocked by the device user, it gets harder to roll this back. Which, considering that this year has also seen U.S. customs and immigrant agents seizing more devices owned by U.S. citizens when they return to the States, must rank as a good thing.

The Supreme Court acted when Congress wouldn’t

The legislative branch continued to flaunt its uselessness by once again failing to pass needed bills addressing such issues as the inadequate legal protection of email stored online and the difficulty of building out broadband infrastructure.

But Congress isn’t the only source of change in Washington. In 2017, the House and Senate failed anew to address “patent trolling”—in which companies buy up generic patents that should never have been issued in the first place, then stick up random companies with bogus claims of infringement. But the Supreme Court did its part to curb that practice by holding in May that you can’t sue a company for patent infringement anywhere you please.

That 8-0 ruling effectively terminated the common troll tactic of filing in the patent-plaintiff-friendly Eastern District of Texas.

The court is now turning its attention to another problem Congress has ignored: whether police investigators should need a warrant to access your wireless carrier’s minute-by-minute records of your location. You have to allow that tracking to have your phone connect at all—but courts have traditionally viewed it as data you can’t expect to be kept private, precisely because you let another company access it.

Hoping for what Republicans have sometimes called “judicial activism” is no substitute for Congress doing its job, but in 2017 it’s often been all we’ve had. And that seems unlikely to change in 2018.

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