The technology business is booming with the growth of the Internet, and questions about our place in cyberspace are growing with it. This year featured reports about the role of social media businesses and private information, what counts as intellectual property in the digital age and how much power should a government assert on the Internet, which has effectively never been regulated by a single entity. Courts will continue to tackle these questions in 2014, and here are the top five cases driving those debates.
Supreme Court Tackles Software Patents
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 is scheduled to rule on a case that may limit what qualifies as a software patent, which is causing a sharp division among tech companies concerned about their lucrative war chests of software patents. The high court will determine whether CLS Bank International infringed on Alice Corporation's patents for its computer-based financial transaction system. The ruling could make it difficult to assert a software patent, which concerns companies like Microsoft and International Business Machines because they own decades of programming patents.
A court ruling in early 2014 might weaken government ability to regulate Internet Service Providers, and grant companies including Verizon might gain freedom to prioritize broadband access to certain websites. Verizon is challenging the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules which requires ISPs to deliver all Web content equally in a practice known as net neutrality. Proponents of that doctrine say it would curb antitrust threats from tech companies but detractors say it could harm competition by stifling the options of those businesses.
Samsung v. Apple Patent Lawsuit
The biggest patent trial in recent years will continue in 2014, following a jury decision in November by the U.S. District Court of Northern District of California that Samsung owes Apple $290 million for copying key features of older versions of the iPad and iPhone.The big impact for consumers could come following the next trial on the case scheduled for March, which will determine whether Samsung's newest devices – including the Galaxy S3 – copied Apple's technology. A ruling could also pave the way for other companies that want to launch a patent infringement case against a rival business.
Is Aereo Legal?
The final verdict may be approaching for the legality of Aereo, a Web service that re-broadcasts a TV signal online and charges people money for it without paying broadcasters. Aereo keeps winning lawsuits from broadcasters attempting to shut down the service, but networks including Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to shut down the service. If the high court refuses the case then cable companies may emulate or partner with Aereo rather than pay fees to retransmit programming.
Surveillance and Privacy Lawsuits
Concerns about data collection by the National Security Agency and by tech companies dominated the news this year and it is likely courts will be packed with legal questions about privacy rights in 2014.
U.S District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled on Dec. 16 that the NSA phone data collection program may violate the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizure may lead to more legal challenges for and against the agency spying program.
Google and Hulu each faced lawsuits this year regarding their ability to collect or share the information of their users. In 2014 courts and government regulators will likely continue to debate the balance between Internet companies' rights to build services using online information and the privacy rights of their consumers.