Spaceflight lived, software ownership died, and net neutrality lived and died.
NATHAN MATTISE – 1/1/2020, 7:00 AM
It’s been quite a decade. Tech surfed into the 2010s upon a huge wave of optimism and connection (Facebook!) but eventually wiped out on the shoals of cynicism and tribalism (Facebook!). Along the way, we cavorted with porn trolls, wept over the corpse of net neutrality, and stared into the unblinking eye of the digital surveillance state.
Here are the trends and tales that defined the last ten years of tech in the eyes of Ars. Treasure them in your hearts, for one day you might be called upon to retell the Legend of Prenda Law or to let your grandchildren know what it was like to believe in social media as a force for good. And lo, verily, they shall gaze upon you with wide eyes and ask, “No foolin’?” And you shall nod sagely as you stare off into the far distance and say: “No foolin’, kids. I lived it.”
- Who is Dread Pirate Roberts, again? Aurich Lawson
- Remember Charles Carreon? Charles Carreon / Aurich Lawson
- John Steele, of Prenda Law fame. Aurich Lawson
- Newegg’s former Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng. Newegg
Those crazy court cases
It’s hard to look back at any decade in science and technology without a few cameos from the legal system. The 2010s, of course, were no different: Apple v. Samsung just ended a long battle over smartphone feature patents that impacted the marketplace (and company pocketbooks). And Oracle v. Google is about to spill into the 2020s and potentially reverse a disastrous decision regarding software APIs.
But they weren’t the most fascinating cases. That honor goes to these four, which turned courtroom filings into high drama:
US v Ulbricht: Perhaps the court case most likely to inspire a dramatic series or a true crime podcast, Ross Ulbricht was given a life sentence for his role in creating and maintaining the Silk Road online drug marketplace. The saga had dirty cops, copious amounts of drugs and cash, an alleged murder-for-hire attempt, and a dramatic library arrest—with Ulbricht’s laptop open and accessible.
US v. Hansmeier: For any longtime reader of Ars, the name “Prenda Law” is immediately recognizable. The Prenda firm specialized in a new form of porn trolling—they produced porn, then uploaded it to file-sharing sites, then sued the downloaders. Once they unmasked a downloader, Prenda would offer to settle the case outside for less than a lawyer would cost. Masterminds—and we use the term loosely—Paul Hansmeier and John Steele tried long and hard to cover their tracks, but in the end, both ended up with prison sentences.
Funny Junk v. The Oatmeal: This one started when Tuscon lawyer Charles Carreon demanded that Matt Inman, the creator of popular webcomic The Oatmeal, “deliver to me a check in the amount of $20,000” as payment for some things Inman had said about a site called FunnyJunk. Inman then responded by drawing a picture of a woman (possibly Carreon’s mom) seducing a bear. Inman also offered to take a photo of $200,000 he raised online for charities and to send that to Carreon. It all culminated in Carreon attempting to sue Inman, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Cancer Society, and 100 anonymous “Does” who had allegedly mocked or bullied Carreon online. Carreon ending up having to pay $46,100 in legal fees.
Newegg v. the “shopping cart” patent: “We basically took a look at this situation and said, ‘This is bullshit,’” Newegg’s Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng told Ars when we asked about his company taking on Soverain Software and its “shopping cart” patent, covering (literally) online shopping carts. But after Soverain had sued more than 50 big retailers, they picked the wrong one with Cheng and Newegg—the lawsuit ended with the “shopping cart” patent being invalidated. It had been a robust decade for so-called patent trolls, but in 2017 the Supreme Court limited where patent holders could file their lawsuits, and the East Texas “rocket docket” patent pipeline dried up.
Disney acquires everything
Back in 2010, Disney had its famed vault full of movies, a TV channel, ABC/ESPN, some parks, Pixar… OK, it was still Disney. But the company hadn’t yet ballooned into the entertainment Goliath we know today. The House of Mouse’s Thanos-like march towards “I’m inevitable” in the 2010s began with a deal to take over Marvel that was announced in August 2009 and influenced the whole of the 2010s cinematic landscape. Marvel properties have since expanded into several successful (and several just OK) TV franchises and video games, as you might expect from a company that loves money enough to produce a live-action Beauty and the Beast.
In 2012, Disney acquired Internet fandom’s other most-obsessed-about franchise with the purchase of Lucasfilm. That led to the revival of the canonical Star Wars film franchise, with 2015’s The Force Awakens becoming the first theatrical Star Wars release in a decade. Since that point, Disney has fleshed out the trilogy (2017’s Last Jedi, this year’s Rise of Skywalker) and actually rolled out a new Star Wars film every year with the introduction of standalone adventures like Rogue One and Solo. Toss in a new streaming exclusive set in a galaxy far, far away and Star Wars may be in better place than the franchise has been in quite some time.
Finally, in 2018 Fox was looking for a new corporate partner—and it too ended up under the Disney umbrella (sorry, Comcast). With Disney setting its sights on the streaming era, this one made almost too much sense—beloved series from The Simpsons to Family Guy to Atlanta to Sons of Anarchy now kinda, sorta fell under Disney’s purview. The Simpsons became a marquee addition to Disney+, while the others help keep Hulu (also Disney-controlled, since early 2019) afloat.
If the 2020s goes similarly for Disney, well… please be kind to all of us, Bob Iger.
- FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in 2012 United States Mission Geneva
- FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in 2016 Jon Brodkin
- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Getty Images | Bloomberg
The fight for an open Internet
In 2010/2011, a Democractic-majority Federal Communications Commission (FCC) led by Chairperson Julius Genachowski passed the decade’s first net neutrality rules. The rules, however, faced pushback—industry opponents like Verizon argued that the regulations exceeded the FCC’s authority, while net neutrality proponents like Free Press thought they were too narrow.
Fast forward to Genachowski’s successor, former broadband lobbyist turned FCC chairperson Tom Wheeler. Net neutrality rules were strengthened in 2015, as a Wheeler-led Democratic-majority FCC voted for net neutrality with provisions such as banning paid fast lanes and classifying ISPs as telecommunications services, which allowed ISPs to be regulated under Title II of the Communications Act. The decision brought Internet service under the same type of regulatory regime faced by wireline telephone service and mobile voice, though the FCC stopped short of applying stricter utility-style rules that it could have applied under Title II. ISPs soon sued, but Wheeler and the FCC won at appeals.
With the election of President Donald Trump, the FCC gained a Republican majority led by chairperson Ajit Pai. One of Pai’s first priorities was repealing net neutrality rules, regulations that he said prevented the expansion of broadband in rural America. Pai’s FCC reclassified Internet access as an information service, not a telecommunicaton service, eliminating regulations on things like priority fast lanes or the act of blocking and throttling traffic. Coincidentally, Comcast deleted a net neutrality pledge from its company website the same day the FCC repealed the prior rules.
The decade had other Internet freedom battles—the Internet defeated SOPA/PIPA, while President Trump signed SESTA and FOSTA to crack down on prostitution and sex trafficking—but none remain as central to the future of the Internet as net neutrality.
- Tim Cook, feeling good about the new products and updates Apple announced. Valentina Palladino
- Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
- Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, speaks at the Microsoft Annual Shareholders Meeting in Bellevue, Washington, on November 30, 2016. Jason Redmond / Getty Images
New faces at the helm for Microsoft, Google, and Apple
Steve Jobs’ death on October 5, 2011 feels like a seismic moment in modern consumer tech history. Under his leadership, Apple introduced several products that shaped our day-to-day lives (iPod, MacBook, iPhone). But before his death, Jobs stepped down in order to allow Tim Cook to succeed him as CEO. Cook came from Apple’s sales and operations department, but in the last decade he’s put a much broader imprint on the company than just steering the ship to a $1 trillion-plus valuation. Apple has taken stronger stances on social issues (curtailing white supremacists and conspiracy theorists on its platforms, for instance), it has made privacy a core public focus, and it’s slowly becoming a major health data and research player with the help of what might be its most successful product launch this decade, Apple Watch.
Over at Microsoft, former CEO Steve Ballmer departed in 2013 and the company put Satya Nadella in charge. Under Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft has bet big on software and services oriented company (RIP, Windows Phone). Still, Microsoft can make some solid hardware; the HoloLens augmented reality headset saw industry adoption Google Glass could only dream about, while the Microsoft Surface has arguably become the leading convertible (now seen everywhere from campus lecture halls to NFL sidelines).
Over in Mountain View, Google has perhaps had the most significant shake up. Larry Page and Sergey Brin introduced an entirely new corporate structure in 2015, one that saw them become leaders at Alphabet, a company overseeing former Google initiatives such as Waymo and Google. Sundar Pichai ascended to the Google CEO role after previously overseeing Android, and under his tenure, Google has continued to take big swings (the Google Assistant in your home, Android in your car, and Google in your hand with the Pixel line) as internally it weathered several instances of employee frustration over things like company involvement with military initiatives or how the company handled former executives linked to alleged sexual misconduct. Pichai has arguably had the most kinetic decade of these three leaders, especially considering that he was recently promoted to CEO of Alphabet as Page and Brin stepped away this month.
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Only a handful of news stories have that “I remember where I was when” quality, but I certainly remember that I sat at my parents’ kitchen table a lot during the first week of June 2013. That’s when The Guardian and The Washington Post disclosed a secret court order between the National Security Agency (NSA) and Verizon and then published secret presentation slides revealing an undisclosed massive surveillance program called PRISM. This initiative had the NSA work with major tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook to collect data “directly from the servers” of these Big Tech institutions. What we’d eventually know as the Snowden leaks—named for former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden—had officially gone public.
The rest is modern tech history. The revelation that Big Tech and Big Government worked so closely together shook society. Privacy soon became a rallying cry of Internet users everywhere and a differentiating point between the very tech companies identified in the leaks. Encryption became a topic debated in the US Capitol. Whether or not Snowden was a hero or a traitor became a question asked during presidential debates. The situation inspired an Oscar-winning documentary, a dramatic biopic, and a new memoir.
Social media’s dark side
Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006) began long before the decade did, and Instagram (2010) only surfaced right as the 2010s got underway. But the past decade saw society’s understanding of social media morph from “Ooo! Cat pictures!” to “…will this be the downfall of humanity?”
Compare and contrast the 2012 and 2016 US elections. Social media was championed as a get-out-the-vote tool and a direct-to-voter campaign driver for the Obama and Romney campaigns, but the sophistication of these platforms’ targeting capabilities and a black-hat understanding of their algorithmic amplifiers led to social media having a much different role next time around. As the Mueller Report outlined in excruciating detail, foreign actors leveraged social media to sow discontent and disenfranchisement anywhere they could in the lead up to 2016—posing simultaneously as Black Lives Matter groups, anti-immigration groups, and pro-guns groups. All was done in the name of chaos; all was possible because of how ingrained these platforms have become in all of our lives.