No. 1 tech story of 2011: The war for control of the Internet (and your data)

From net neutrality to CarrierIQ to Twitter subpoenas, the battle over digital rights and privacy rages on

This is the 11th and final post for "My personal, hand-selected top 11 tech stories of 2011." You can read the first 10 by clicking on the links at the bottom.


The death of Steve Jobs in October marked the passing of an historical figure who built the most valuable tech company in the world.

It was a huge story, and the Apple co-founder's death triggered an emotional response from Apple fans and tech professionals worldwide.

But the most significant tech story of 2011 wasn't about a single event or tragedy. It's an ongoing story whose end has not yet been written, but which impacts the lives of billions.

It's the war for control of both the Internet and your personal data, and it features numerous participants, including:

* Advocates of "net neutrality" who oppose restrictions by either Internet service providers or governments vs. opponents who want to create a system where ISPs could block, slow down or charge more for legitimate content and applications, even content or services the consumer already has paid for. Efforts to overturn the FCC's net neutrality regulations in the U.S. so far have been unsuccessful, but already Verizon is trying to change the rules.

* Mark "The Age of Privacy is Over" Zuckerberg and search giant Google vs. the billions for whom keeping details of your personal life from strangers and your financial and demographic data from marketers and other corporations that want to exploit that information for profit isn't considered antiquated.

After one too many breaches of user privacy, Facebook cut a deal with the Federal Trade Commission in late November that requires it to obtain the consent of users before making a change to any default profile settings that could expose more personal data that you had agreed to. As ITworld privacy blogger Dan Tynan wrote, the FTC agreement likely was motivated more by Facebook's upcoming initial public offering than a genuine new respect for user privacy. Once the IPO goes off, what then? A $5 million fine from the FTC? Ooh.

Google began the year under double-secret probation for collecting private information from vehicles dispersed throughout the world for its Google Street View. But that was a mere technological snafu, nothing nefarious! Honest!

Same with Google Buzz, the social service that made public the personal contacts of Gmail users without their knowledge or consent. Google, the company that loves the "creepy" line of privacy policy, settled with the FTC in March for no fine and agreed to "privacy audits" for the next 20 years.

* Companies that store mobile device user location tracking data vs. smartphone users who had no idea they were being tracked and privacy advocates who apparently haven't heard that Mark Zuckerberg's New Privacy Rule has rendered their jobs obsolete.

In April both Apple and Google were busted for collecting data about the location of Android, iPhone and iPad users without their permission. They didn't mean it. It was an accident. It won't happen again. Trust us. Trust us. Trust us.

* Carrier IQ and most of the mobile device industry vs. people who didn't know the Carrier IQ software on more than 140 million handsets worldwide was recording their keystroke data and web browsing history. Fortunately for these people whose data, including SMS message contents, was being logged, Carrier IQ assured them that their information was safe in its hands. Trust us.

* Supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) -- including the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America -- vs. free speech and rights advocacy groups as well as others who think it's not such as great idea for the U.S. government and copyright holders to shut down web sites accused -- merely accused! -- of infringement. Proponents of the legislation dismiss concerns about SOPA being abused as "myths" and assure us they won't abuse the power vested in them should the bill become law. This battle will continue into the new year.

* Wikipedia, Anonymous, OccupyWallStreet and other opponents of abusive power vs. governments and corporations around the world that fear the power of the Internet even as they attempt to harness that power to increase their own.

In January, the Egyptian government shut down the Internet and ordered mobile phone operators to suspend service in the face of fierce street protests. The action was brief and futile. In February and March, Libya followed suit in an effort to quell the revolution that eventually cost longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi his life.

Under pressure from the U.S. and foreign governments, banks continued to choke off contributions to Wikileaks in retaliation for the whistle-blowing site's publication of confidential government and corporate documents. The U.S. Department of Justice subpoenas Twitter for information about the accounts of Wikileaks members and supporters (sympathizers? fellow travelers?). Because the Internet information pipeline should only flow one way.

Hacktivist collective Anonymous, which helped globalize the OccupyWallStreet movement, is branded a national security threat by the FBI. Members start getting arrested.

Efforts by the powerful to control data and the flow of information will continue because information is both power and money. Power always seeks more power. And power always wants you to trust it.


Top 11 tech stories of 2011 linksNo. 11: Netflix's public suicide art project No. 10: The cloud rises No. 9: Tales of tablet triumph, tragedy No. 8: Patent wars No. 7: The social 'bubble' No. 6: Meet the new boss No. 5: HP's meltdown No. 4: AT&T's $4 billion blink No. 3: Seismic smartphone shift No. 2: The decline and death of Steve Jobs
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