2015 saw amazing leaps in technology of every variety, from consumer video games and toys to data analytics and specialized hardware for the military and international corporations. But new technology and its proliferation also meant that 2015 saw a series of spectacular clashes between the worlds of tech and government. We put together a look the noteworthy moments where the tech industry and government fought, collaborated, compromised or otherwise marked important milestones in 2015 (with big names like Airbnb, Uber and Tesla among the major players on the tech side). This collection shows that, if anything, 2016 will be even more fraught with the complexity of adapting government and regulations to technology and fitting tech into the rest of the world.
Airbnb – Airbnb became a vastly more popular choice for finding a place to stay in 2015 (and D.C. hosts can make good money on the platform). But 2015 also saw new efforts to limit or derail Airbnb around the U.S. and in the District—with proposals to the D.C. Council by hotel-backed organizations. Airbnb tried to head off those attacks with a hotel tax in the District, but that fight isn’t over. Overall, 2015 was a good year for Airbnb, with promising, if limited, success, but 2016 offers more battles for the startup.
Bitcoin – Cryptocurrency fans spent 2015 gathering clout with lobbyists and major credit card companies to try and make bitcoin and its brother currencies mainstream enough to be used by everyone. The tech behind bitcoin is popular enough with banks that bitcoin may be able to make the leap to everyone’s wallet, especially if people start using it through their regular debit cards as Coinbase hopes.
Crowdfunding – This was a very good year for crowdfunders. The SEC’s new rules for equity crowdfunding kicked in, offering millions more people the chance to invest in young startups than had ever been allowed before. Locally connected companies like OneVest and Trustify made good use of the new rules, and big names like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are experimenting with ways to turn their crowdfunders into potential investors.
Drones – Drones aren’t filling the air yet, but 2015 was the year it became a possibility. The FAA released its new rules for private drone use (but doesn’t want them flying in the District) while the first official test of a drone delivery was run by Virginia Tech. And while there’s still a ban on commercial drones, exceptions are being handed out by the FAA at a rapid clip.
Encryption – The fight over data encryption rules intensified in 2015 as more tech companies pledged to encrypt customer data, even as law enforcement officials warned that doing so was a threat to national security. President Obama weighed in, but 2015 really just served to help define the positions of both sides, any real resolution will take a lot more time and effort.
Fantasy Sports – DraftKings and FanDuel made 2015 an exciting, but turbulent, year for fantasy sports—specifically, for the daily fantasy sports category that they dominate. The FBI investigation of the companies started when a DraftKings employee won $350,000 on FanDuel. Although both sites claim nothing shady happened, the companies have changed their rules so that employees can’t play on either site. But new scrutiny on the federal level and in states like Maryland, Illinois and New York, has led to fantasy sports hiring well-connected lobbyists and making their presence known on Capitol Hill.
Google – Google technically became a subsidiary of Alphabet in 2015, but that corporate shakeup is minor compared to some of its other activities. Self-driving cars went from fantasy to a reality seen more and more on the road, while drones to deliver goods and Internet started to take off. Of course, whether Google can do better at not being “evil” next year is an open question.
Hackers – 2015 sometimes felt like the year when everything was hacked. Cybersecurity was an issue for a laundry list of government and corporate servers as diverse as the IRS, the Office of Personnel Management and Ashley Madison. Hackers got into phones, cars and even your love life.
Immigration – Lots of big tech companies and trade organizations hoped to see immigration reform happen so they could hire and keep highly trained talent from overseas. Unfortunately for them, 2015 was not a good year for any kind of legislative action on immigration, whether for programmers or refugees. The rhetoric of fear about immigrants taking jobs will take a lot of effort and funding to overcome on Capitol Hill.
Jobs – There is an almost insatiable hunger for tech talent, both in D.C. and around the country, and tech companies are eager to poach federal employees with the skills they need. An emphasis on increasing technological competence in the government has led to a cross-fertilization process between government agencies and tech companies, both directly encouraged by President Obama and tech moguls looking for ways that regulatory and tech experts can improve both sides of the equation.
K Street – Convincing regulators and lawmakers to think of tech companies and their interests means heading to K Street to find lobbyists and 2015 offered plenty of work for the high-paid lawyers and former elected officials. Fantasy sports, drones, and every other kind of technology and tech derivative has a presence in some form on Capitol Hill, whether as direct lobbyists, trade organizations or other group.
Lending – One of the many unintended consequences of better data analytics is how it affected bank loans. There’s a real, and valid, concern that data can be used by banks to discriminate in their lending practices. The behavior that computers pick up on as cause for concern is worrying anti-discrimination experts, who say the benefits of getting more loans to people would still unfairly exclude some.
Music Royalties – Digital music and streaming have changed the music business in a major way. Artists and publishers are having fierce fights over royalties, while lobbying Congress for changes. It’s a fight that is leaving nobody happy and completely able to get their way. Unless you’re Taylor Swift of course.
Net Neutrality – 2015 was a fantastic year for net neutrality. The FCC’s new rules came into effect and were left untouched by Congress’ new budget. There are some huge court fights ahead, but FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been relentlessly confident about the legal strength of the new rules. 2016 will be when we find out if he’s right.
Open Data – President Obama has been an outspoken proponent of making public government data more accessible to the public and to companies with ideas on how to use it. In 2015, that meant the Commerce Department got its first ever data scientist, that a new college scorecard could come out and that startups all over the country could improve their offerings to customers in things like education, real estate and transportation by use of all that public data.
Patents – Tech companies have been fighting patent trolls and pushing for patent reform to help for years now. 2015 was a continuation of those battles, but without much change. Patent reform bills haven’t succeeded in Congress and though the USPTO has been making some changes to combat trolls, it’s a fight that will last at least through another election.
Quorum (Political Analytics) – The use of big data for politics is growing fast ahead of the 2016 election and Quorum, which moved to D.C. this year, is right at the heart of it, offering online legislative data analysis for quantitative answers to qualitative policy questions. It’s not alone though, companies like Blue Labs use analytics for campaigns too and if they play the expected vital role next year, there will be more popping up all the time.
Regulation – No startup that might be impacted by regulation can fail to ignore it. After being declared illegal in Utah this year, employee benefits management startup Zenefits got active—and eventually convinced Utah’s governor and lawmakers to change the status. “Clearly, it pays to engage with government,” TechCrunch wrote of the case.
SpaceX – Not everyone appears to be thrilled with Elon Musk’s rocketry upstart—including some in Congress, who’ve been backed by defense giants that compete for space-related contracts. In August, for instance, 14 members of Congress complained to NASA that SpaceX’s investigation into the Falcon 9 rocket explosion didn’t seem rigorous enough.
Tesla – Elon Musk’s other company has had its clashes with government too. Earlier this year, West Virginia became the fifth state in the U.S. to outlaw direct sales of Teslas to consumers. Tesla has contended the ban is meant to “protect the car dealer monopoly.”
Uber – The ride-hailing company’s war with regulators around the U.S. have been highly publicized. Along with major ongoing scrutiny in many cities, flat-out bans have included Nevada and Portland, Ore. (though those bans were both overturned in the spring). Outside the U.S., Uber has been in regulatory fights in London, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, among others.
Virginia – Formerly, Virginia was among those with a ban on Uber and Lyft. In February, a compromise was reached: the companies would have to pay for the right to operate in the state and also register their drivers through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Watch (Apple) – Apple’s launch of its first wearable this year ran into a bit of a hiccup on the way, in the form of regulatory concerns. Via WSJ: “When Apple Inc. started developing its smartwatch, executives envisioned a state-of-the-art health-monitoring device that could measure blood pressure, heart activity and stress levels, among other things, according to people familiar with the matter.” Some of those features were nixed because they “could have prompted unwanted regulatory oversight,” according to the report.
Yelp – The local reviews site—widely controversial among business owners for its practices around allowing negative reviews—has faced two inquiries from the Federal Trade Commission. But the FTC has closed both of them without taking any action, most recently dropping the second inquiry in January.
Zuckerberg – The Facebook CEO’s group FWD.us has pushed for reform of immigration laws, including visa reform that could help more immigrants in the engineering field to stay and work for U.S. tech companies.