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The 5 Big Tech Policy Battles Of 2017

As the tech industry navigates the first year of the Trump era, old conflicts over encryption and net neutrality will likely resurface, along with unsettled disputes over surveillance, censorship, and the spread of information.

Last updated on December 29, 2016, at 2:52 p.m. ET

Posted on December 29, 2016, at 2:52 p.m. ET

Carlos Barria / Reuters

In 2016, the world of tech was marked by a clash between tech companies and law enforcement over encryption; antagonism between the European Union and Silicon Valley; and a reignited debate over network neutrality.

2017 may be an even more notable year for the future of tech. Key policies are likely to be set and unmade by a Republican-controlled Congress and a new president who maintains an uncertain relationship with the tech industry elite and who has expressed criticism of net neutrality and a desire to expand government surveillance.

However, president-elect Trump and the new Congress won't be the only ones shaping the tech policy agenda in the new year; tech companies and everyday users will also influence the debate. Here are the top five tech policy issues you'll probably hear a lot about in 2017.

1. Encryption

Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

During the divisive legal fight in early 2016 that set Apple and much of the tech industry against the FBI over an encrypted iPhone, Donald Trump sided with the government and attacked Apple. Just a candidate at the time, Trump signaled that if elected, his administration would force tech companies to weaken their security features in order to help law enforcement access encrypted information.

President Obama did not push for new legislation to mandate encryption backdoors in tech products, but lawmakers have yet to settle the issue. Just last week, a Congressional working group published a year-end study on encryption and the challenges it poses to law enforcement. The group's main finding was to condemn efforts to weaken encryption, but it didn't offer any real policy recommendations. According to members of Congress who have studied the issue closely, the debate over encryption has never died down, but Congress still doesn't know what should be done about it.

After he takes office in 2017, Trump's administration might push for decisive action. He may support backdoors, energizing law enforcement's long-running demands to have lawful access to secure data. And as messaging apps that offer encryption, like Signal, WhatsApp, Google's Allo, and Facebook's Messenger, continue to grow in popularity, the Justice Department under President Trump could pursue a precedent-setting courtroom challenge to undermine the technology behind them.

2. Net Neutrality... The Sequel

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Mike Blake / Reuters

Will Comcast slow my Netflix? Or charge me more to watch YouTube? These concerns fueled a massive populist campaign culminating in 2015, when federal regulators set sweeping rules prohibiting internet providers from discriminating against — or offering preferential treatment to — certain types of content on the web.

Telecom giants mounted an intense legal challenge to the net neutrality rules earlier this year, but a federal court sided with the government and open internet advocates. Broadband providers and industry groups still haven't backed down. President Donald Trump might offer them reasons to be hopeful. In the past, he's attacked net neutrality, and he has already named telecom advisors critical of the policy. Under his administration, net neutrality rules may go unenforced, and there's even a possibility they will get rolled back or dismantled.

Experts tell BuzzFeed News that Trump's actions on net neutrality and telecom policy may also expose divisions in Washington between a laissez-faire approach to regulation and populist appeals to block or dismantle the concentration of corporate power.

3. Warrantless Surveillance

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In 2015, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security adopted tighter federal policies on the use of cell-site simulators, commonly referred to by their industry name, "Stingrays." The secretive tracking devices work by mimicking mobile phone towers and tricking nearby cellphones into connecting to them. Stingrays can then pinpoint the exact location of the phones. Some devices can intercept texts and conversations.

The new policies compel federal agents to first seek a search warrant before the cell-site simulators can be deployed. But those rules carry exceptions, don't apply to local law enforcement, and because they aren't enshrined in law, can simply be undone by the Trump administration, according to a new Congressional report. Staff on the Congressional committee behind the report told BuzzFeed News that without legislation, no clear national standard exists for the use of stingrays, leaving the door open to crucial shifts in policy.

Some in Silicon Valley are worried that the privacy of their customers and their business will come under threat once Trump takes office, based on what he has said about surveillance on the campaign trail. Trump has said he wants to expand the government's surveillance powers — that view may very well extend to stingrays. As the self-described "law and order" candidate, Trump could promote the use of cell-site simulators by federal agents and local police departments, loosening restrictions tied to them.

4. Airbnb Will Continue to Face Off With Local Governments

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Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Airbnb, the $30 billion home sharing company, views itself as a platform beneficial to middle class families and cities. But policy makers and advocates across the country see the company as a threat to affordable housing.

The debate over Airbnb's impact on local housing supply has drawn the attention of lawmakers in Washington, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Members of Congress have called on the Federal Trade Commission to examine home-sharing's effects on neighborhoods and to measure the percentage of hosts who rent their properties in bulk, as professional, commercial entities.

In New York and California, local governments have moved to restrict the company's short-term home rentals that critics say flout local laws. Airbnb, however, maintains that such policies serve entrenched interests — not the people and communities where home sharing can help tackle economic inequality. How Airbnb and local governments resolve these legal battles in 2017 and beyond will determine the company's long-term growth and will serve as a kind of test-case for the future of the sharing economy.

5. Facebook's Influence Over News, Fake and Otherwise

Mariana Bazo / Reuters

When he first confronted charges that fake news on Facebook influenced the presidential election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed it as a "pretty crazy idea." Since then, Facebook has announced a host of initiatives to curb the spread of fake news on its platform, including partnering with third-party fact checkers to verify and flag fake news.

This move may expose Facebook to the kind of criticism it experienced earlier in 2016, when the platform was accused of making editorial decisions that hid or downplayed conservative points of view in people's newsfeeds. More broadly, the debate over fake news highlights just how influential Facebook has become — now that it's a major source for news, many media outlets depend on it to distribute their stories, and it's shaping public debate on key political issues.

It's unlikely that Facebook's growing influence over the distribution of news will provoke US policymakers to action. But as the company's choices invite and complicate changes in the way politicians, partisan organizations, and voters communicate around the world, the news media and Facebook's own users may compel the social network to examine its influence over what people see and believe.

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