Since 2008, I've always concluded the year with a post in which I take a step back and reflect on (1) how I continue to remain optimistic despite lots of negative news (2) the overall forward progress of innovation, even while so many stories play up the negative and (3) the power to keep that forward progress moving. It started after I had a few people question how I remained so optimistic and happy, despite writing so many stories that seemed somewhat infuriating. But, as I noted at the time, the infuriating parts were mostly about attempts by people (often those in power) to hold back the pace of innovation. The forward progress of innovation marches on, however. And thus, we can and should be happy about that, even if we're angry about the pace and the efforts to hinder that pace. It's about understanding the difference between relative and absolute change. We should be happy with where things are headed, even if we're upset about the pace at which things are moving.
If you'd like to see all of the historical New Year's Message posts, they're here:
Last year I started off by noting that I expected that message to be a bit of a downer, as it felt
like things had been an even bigger struggle than in the past. But as I looked over the details, I realized it was the same story again. Yes, it was a struggle against forces that sought to stop progress, but the frustration was more about the pace, rather than the overall direction. And the same is true this year. At first I felt
like perhaps things did move a little backwards this year, but upon reflection that's not actually the case. Potentially it feels worse because of a few bits of bad news at the very end of the year, coloring the view over the entire year.
On the whole, however, there were lots of truly positive things this year. The FCC really did pass real net neutrality rules and has at least taken some steps towards enforcing them (and even just having those rules in place "magically" made the big broadband providers suddenly figure out how to stop Netflix from being throttled). Yes, there are challenges in place to those rules, including a legal challenge and attempts to route around the rules through data caps and zero rating, but overall the net neutrality fight was a huge win for the internet. At the beginning of the process, in 2014 it was "common knowledge" that there was no way the FCC would make use of its Title II powers to put in place real net neutrality rules -- and yet, thanks to the internet speaking out, it did exactly that in 2015.
On the surveillance front, I know there's lots of reasonable concern and criticism about it, but the USA FREEDOM Act really was the first significant surveillance reform package that restricted
some surveillance activities in well over a decade. That's a huge win. No, it didn't go far enough. Yes, there are many other concerns about what USA FREEDOM does allow, as well as what other legal authorities allow, but the bill was still a step in the right direction. Yes, there are concerns about other efforts, like CISA (eventually passed in the Omnibus bill as the "Cybersecurity Act of 2015"), but getting at least some surveillance reform was a big deal. And, despite what some think, there are huge opportunities to push for even bigger wins in the future against mass surveillance. But this is going to require a really big fight, especially as countries like the UK take a massive step backwards on this issue.
Similarly, the fight over backdooring encryption is a key one that we've been focusing on, but so far it's been a pretty big success. While tech companies used to basically ignore encryption entirely, Apple has been out front and center banging the drum on the importance of encryption. And, yes, the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino (despite a lack of encryption being key to either attack) have given the enemies of encryption a new foothold to argue their nonsense, but cooler heads in both Congress and the White House both seem to recognize that what's being asked for is both magic pixie dust... and basically impossible.
In the meantime, though, stronger encryption and privacy is
becoming much more standard. Apple has made encryption on phones a default and Google has been moving in that direction too. Consumer friendly apps like Signal are making communications encryption much more accessible. More and more websites are moving to HTTPS and DNSSEC. The forward progress of technology is making many of the political debates... obsolete.
On the copyright front, there were some huge victories, including a really great ruling on fair use in the Author's Guild case against Google Books. It's a ruling that will get cited time and time again in copyright/fair use cases. The 9th Circuit corrected its huge mistake from a year earlier in saying that an actress had a copyright interest in her performance in a movie. And it was made clear that Warner/Chappell no longer can shake down everyone for singing "Happy Birthday." Yes, there were some bad rulings as well, including the ruling over Cox's DMCA protections, but that's just at the district court level, and we can hope that it will get fixed in later rounds.
More importantly, there are indications that many in Congress are finally realizing that copyright law does not work well with the internet today, and there appears to be some willingness to fix the problems of statutory damages and the use of the DMCA for outright censorship.
On patents, we still have not gotten the necessary patent reform out of Congress, but courts are still showing an increasing willingness to pushback on abuse, and hopefully that continues into the new year.
Yes, there's still much to be done. We could use lots of legal reforms on issues: patent law, copyright law, the CFAA, ECPA and surveillance all still need fixing. But, again, there's been forward progress on many of these items, and things that were considered off the table only a year ago are now entirely within the realm of possibility.
Meanwhile, innovation itself continues to move forward. I've talked about new consumer-friendly tools for privacy and encryption, and that is likely to increase over the next year. Similarly, we're seeing new powerful innovations that I hope will address many of the other policy
challenges that we're facing. While politicians and legacy industries bemoan technology "outpacing" the law, I keep seeing examples of technology doing a much better job
providing the public with what it needs, rather than policy makers trying to create laws to do the same.
On the Techdirt front, we had another fun year of discussions and conversations. Our biggest news was the launch of our think tank, The Copia Institute
, which released some papers and held our first summit and some additional gatherings. Expect a lot
more on that front in the coming year. We're also working on some additional things for the Techdirt community itself, so stay tuned.
As always, I'd like to conclude with a giant thank you to everyone here who's a part of the Techdirt community. As I've said in the past, you're the ones who make all of this worthwhile, no matter how you engage. Whether you comment or lurk. Whether we're something you share with all your friends, or are just a guilty pleasure you keep to yourself. Whether you submit stories or engage with us. We appreciate that you're a part of this community, and that you're passionate about all that we discuss.
We know that lots of websites are rejecting their own communities these days -- turning off comments, putting up paywalls, and blocking people from reading if they have ad blockers on. We've gone in the other direction on all of these things and that's because we don't look upon each person as an opportunity to exploit, but rather a community member who we hope will participate in some way.
I've been doing this for 18 incredible years and I don't intend to slow down any time soon. This remains the best job in the world -- to write about and discuss these issues with all of you. Any time I get annoyed at what's happening in the world, it's the folks here who not only prop me up, but help me see through the clutter. I know that some of you are more optimistic than others, and some are more cynical. But overall, the depth and knowledge and passion of this community are what makes this all worthwhile.
Thank you again for being a part of all things Techdirt.