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Tensions Rise for Technology Issues in 2015

Any kid who got a PlayStation for Christmas only to be unable to use its online network can tell you thathackers became more daring and destructive in 2014. Cybersecurity is only one of many tech policy issues that will become more of a challenge to lawmakers and politicians in 2015, when Republicans will assume majority control of the Senate and the U.S. will confront foreign policy made increasingly complex by the Internet.

[SPECIAL REPORT: Cybersecurity]

Congress has fought for and failed to pass comprehensive cybersecurity reform in recent years, but numerous attacks on networks in 2014 reminded Americans of how vulnerable consumers and companies are to hackers. The year began with businesses like Target and Neiman Marcus reeling from massive breaches of their customers’ data and ended with Sony Pictures Entertainment suffering what could be the most devastating hack ever staged against a U.S. company. Another cybersecurity debacle faced Sony and Microsoft on Christmas Day when hackers disabled the online networks of both the PlayStation and Xbox gaming consoles.

It is unclear whether cybersecurity legislation will be easier to pass in 2015, when control over the Senate shifts to Republicans, or whether having fewer Democratic lawmakers will reduce awareness of privacy in tech policy reform. Silicon Valley is gearing up to play a stronger role in lobbying Congress on tech industry issues in 2015, after several tech policy failures this past session, and ashift in Senate leadership may help the tech industry’s efforts

The tech industry continues to lobby in favor of net neutrality rules being considered by the Federal Communications Commission, which may affect the future quality of Internet connections as much as cybersecurity. Nearly a year after Verizon Communications defeated the previous net neutrality rules in court, the commission is considering whether to invoke its legal authority over phone companies to apply the open Internet rules to Internet providers.

The FCC’s legal authority found in Title II of the Communications Act will be a decisive part of the debate with Republican lawmakers lividly opposed to that proposal advocated by President Barack Obama and other Democratic lawmakers. Republicans are also wary of enforcement efforts by agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which has called for vigilance on cybersecurity and privacy concerns.

Privacy remains a dividing line between Democratic and Republican lawmakers in other national security issues, including surveillance powers of government agencies like the National Security Agency. Surveillance reform efforts gained momentum in both houses of Congress during 2014;

[READ: The Sony Hack Shows How Vulnerable We Are to Intangible Threats]

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., came just short of navigating partisan gridlock with a version of his USA Freedom Act bill that would please both privacy advocates and supporters of government surveillance powers. The bill did not receive a vote on the Senate floor. Republicans have in the past supported strong national security over privacy reform because it was less politically controversial, but with the growing public awareness of government spying it is unclear how much attention GOP lawmakers will devote to bills about NSA surveillance.

Concerns about the NSA’s international surveillance of phones and computers are one of many reasons why Internet policy will play a larger role in America’s relations with foreign countries in 2015. The European Union is wary of the agency’s efforts to spy on its citizens and has also supported stricter privacy rules that could pressure U.S. lawmakers to coordinate on an international policy that could be less complicated for the tech industry.

Internet access and digital rights will also play a key role in how the U.S. heals divisions with nations like Cuba, China and Iran. Relations between the U.S. and Iran could improve if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani puts actions behind his recent vocal support for online free speech. The reopening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba could also enable more Cubans to access the Internet and demand more free speech rights from their government. China will continue to be an important trade partner with the U.S. in 2015, but its Internet censorship and restrictive technology trade policywill be determining factors about whether its growing economy will be enough to earn it prestige on the global stage.

Whatever happens in 2015 people will likely spend more time staring at their smartphones – or smart watches – to read news of how the world is changing, hoping that the resources of Internet access can help build a better future.