The Year in News: What Happened Next (Stories From January-February 2016)

It’s time once again to take a look back at some of the news stories we’ve covered here at GaS in 2016 as well as following up on later developments. In January New York City announced plans to replace almost all of its payphone booths with Wi-Fi hotspots funded by advertising. The new booths also had a display screen allowing free Internet access… well, they did until September when that particular facility had to be withdrawn after reports of users committing lewd acts while visiting sites with mature content.

Netflix announced a crackdown on proxy server and VPN use by customers trying to access content licensed for countries other than their own. While many assumed it was simply a token effort to pay lip service to content producers, it followed through in April and the block appeared largely effective, at the very least making “cross-border” viewing a frustrating experience. It remains unclear whether that crackdown or a price rise for long-term customers was the main factor behind the company growing its subscriber base at a much slower rate than forecast.

Meanwhile more than 100,000 Stargate Universe fans signed a petition for Netflix to pick up the show, previously cancelled by Syfy. It fell on deaf ears, though Netflix has just given US viewers their first authorised opportunity to see Travelers, a show by Stargate SG-1 producer Brad Wright and starring several former Stargate actors.

New York and California legislators both considered proposals to make it illegal to sell a smartphone that couldn’t be “decrypted and unlocked by its manufacturer or its operating system provider”, something that would be a big problem for some high-profile handsets, including later model iPhones. In the event, neither bill made it past the committee stage.

Google’s Alpha Go, an artificial intelligence tool dedicated to the board game Go, beat a leading player (and European champion) for the first time, sweeping a five game series. In March it went on to beat Lee Sedol, widely recognized as the world number one, by four games to one. Another AI project from Google’s DeepMind program will now attempt to beat human players at StarCraft II, a particular challenge given much of the information about a game is hidden.

In February, a crowdfunding campaign to revive the ZX Spectrum as a handheld games console (rather than a plug-in controller for a TV screen) proved successful with nearly £500,000 (around US $600,000) raised. Production of the Vega Plus then turned into a controversial saga with two of the company’s founders quitting and production falling behind schedule. While reviewers have been able to test the console at the manufacturing facility and a conference, the delivery schedule to backers remained unconfirmed at the time of writing (19 December.)

Apple defied a court order telling it to give the FBI access to a phone owned by one of the San Bernadino shooters. Apple refused to modify the phone’s operating system to undo a safeguard that wiped all data after ten failed log-in attempts, saying the modified software could be leaked and put millions of other iPhones at risk. The legal battle came to a surprise end when the FBI unlocked the phone without Apple’s help, reportedly with the help of a forensic software company from Israel. Apple’s subsequent attempts to force the FBI to explain how it unlocked the phone appear to have been unsuccessful.

The FCC proposed that cable companies no longer be able to force customers to hire a cable box, with the companies instead making programming data available for third party boxes. Attempts to produce workable rules amid opposition from the cable companies took so long that a vote hadn’t been held by the time of the Presidential election. At that point the plan was put on hold along with other controversial ideas, pending a likely change in political leaning among the FCC’s leadership.


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