10 Stories That Shaped Tech Policy in 2013

From the NSA surveillance revelations to the troubled government healthcare website to a variety of issues that didn't make the mainstream news, here are the top tech policy stories that played out in 2013.

By Kenneth Corbin
Mon, December 23, 2013

CIO — The issues that stir the growing army of tech-sector lobbyists and trade groups in Washington aren't generally front-page news in the mainstream press. But two of the biggest stories of 2013 -- arguably the biggest, at least of the second half of the year -- had technology stamped all over them.

Then there were a litany of other more industry-specific issues that came up for debate in 2013 that, though of a lower profile than the NSA revelations and the government healthcare website, were nonetheless of great concern to technology firms and their policy advocates. Here's a look back at some of the headline tech policy issues that played out over the past year.

NSA Surveillance

The fallout from Edward Snowden's disclosures about the U.S. government's secret intelligence gathering made the former NSA contractor a leading contender for Time's person of the year. That honorific went to Pope Francis, but it's hard to overstate the import of the Snowden leaks, particularly in the tech world.

NSA, privacy, surveillance
The drumbeat of revelations about the NSA's activities began in June, stoking concerns about the role of communications providers and Internet companies in providing customer data to the government. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others have tried mightily to debunk the notion that government spies had a direct pipeline into their servers, collecting data about their customers at will. They are suing to gain authorization to publish more information about the data requests they receive from the government, and have been vocal in their calls for more checks on the government's intelligence-gathering activities.

[ The NSA Quiz ]

[ The NSA Security Quagmire ]

Most recently, in mid-December, top executives from Facebook, Yahoo, Google and other tech firms met with President Obama at the White House to discuss the intelligence programs. Few details about the substance of the discussion emerged, though participants described the mutual feeling that all sides needed to rebuild trust with the American public. The same week, the recommendations of a review board that Obama appointed to review the NSA's activities were published, and the president vowed that reforms would be forthcoming.

"I'm going to make a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January," Obama said in a news conference before leaving for holiday vacation in Hawaii.

HealthCare.gov

The rollout of the federal healthcare website designed as the hub for Americans to shop for insurance plans has been described as many things -- "rocky," "disastrous," "botched" and all manner of other unflattering characterizations.

When the site went live in October, visitors found it slow to load, pages timed out, and applications could not be completed. Temporarily overshadowed by the government shutdown, the problems with the site quickly took center stage in Congress, where Obama's opponents took a particular delight in grilling administration officials about what went wrong, and when Americans could expect the site to work.

Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius repeatedly acknowledged the failure and vowed that it would get better, and soon. Obama said he was commissioning a "tech surge," and the administration summoned industry experts to Washington to help fix the site.

healthcare, government, healthcare.gov
At year-end, HealthCare.gov had improved considerably. More than 1 million people have successfully signed up for new insurance plans, administration officials have said. In December, the White House brought in former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene to run the website. But the site remains a work in progress. To some in the tech sector, the rollout came as the latest reminder that the government too often takes a fundamentally flawed approach to IT projects -- namely, going for the big score, when a more iterative, piecemeal cadence would yield better results.

"I don't think there's a lesson here that we haven't already learned more than once," says Doug Bourgeois, vice president of solutions and services with VMware's U.S. public sector division. "The big bang approach never worked, and yet here we are again with the big bang approach."

Patent Reform

Patent litigation is one of the costs of doing business in the tech sector. But the price tag has risen considerably in recent years, driven in great measure by frivolous litigation brought by so-called patent assertion entities -- often dubbed patent trolls -- that hold patents for the sole purpose of suing for infringement, many tech firms and trade groups have said.

legal, lawsuit, patents
Their complaints found a receptive audience in Congress. In early December, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would seek to cut down on the lawsuits brought by patent trolls by an overwhelming vote. Technology and retail trade groups, along with some digital rights advocates, hailed the passage of the Innovation Act, which would require plaintiffs to disclose the specific patents they are asserting up front and pay defendants' court fees if they lose the case, among other provisions.

The bill, which has drawn sharp criticism from groups representing inventors, university researchers and others, awaits action in Senate.

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