Looking Ahead: 5 Big Issues To Follow For 2016

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Now that 2015 is done and we finally learned that Luke Skywalker is actually Faye Dunaway’s daughter (and sister!), it’s time to take off the party hats, sweep up the confetti, and do the walk of shame forward into the uncharted territory of the year to come.

And it is indeed a trudge, because so many of the issues that will make headlines in the weeks and months to come are holdovers from the last year. If only we could wipe the slate clean every first of January, but the news doesn’t really care what day it is.

Now that we’ve had our orange juice and a bite of bagel, let’s get on to the consumer topics and issues we predict will be in the fore for 2016:

#1: Privacy

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

While the most invasive portions of the Patriot Act have lapsed and been replaced with the smaller-scale snooping allowed by the new USA FREEDOM Act, concerns about invasions of privacy — both from the government and private industry — will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Law enforcement officials at just about every level have pushed back against manufacturers’ efforts to provide consumers with devices that can only be accessed by the user. The U.S. Department of Justice and others have for years called for phone and computer makers to include so-called backdoor access to devices or weaker encryption standards so that computers, phones, and other items can be searched with a warrant, but without requiring the users’ password, fingerprint, or some other key.

The tech industry and privacy advocates have fired back, arguing that this sort of access is not only unprecedented — when you get the lock changed on your garage, you’re not required to provide a copy to the police — but that the inclusion of any sort of built-in backdoor is like putting out a “welcome” mat for hackers.

But even as device manufacturers and Internet giants argue against weakened protections for consumers, some of these same companies stand accused of crossing the line and invading users’ privacy.

A recent complaint accuses Google of spying on users of its Apps for Education. A pending class action claims that Twitter eavesdrops on supposedly private direct messages. Samsung riled up the Internet and privacy advocates by recording audio and transmitting it to a third party, as did the new Hello Barbie doll.

Additionally, the growing “Internet of things” has brought web-connectivity to everything from your thermostat to your garage door to your toothbrush. So much of this is new territory, some of it being charted by new companies with little understanding of best practices for data privacy.

We’re effectively in a pre-adolescent stage in our relationship with the IoT. As these products continue to replace boring ol’ items that don’t connect to the Internet, we’re going to go through a lot of growing pains sorting out when, how, and why we share our data.

#2: Holding Car Companies Accountable

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By General Motors’ own accounting, 124 people died and another 275 were severely injured because the car company failed to issue a recall to replace a part that cost GM a few bucks each. Yes, the car company has paid out nearly $600 million to those victims and their families — and yes, GM did agree to pay $900 million to defer federal criminal charges, but many consumers wanted to know why not a single person at GM was held criminally responsible for negligence that led to so many untimely deaths.

Likewise, Volkswagen has acknowledged that millions of its supposedly “clean diesel” vehicles — several hundred thousand of them sold in the U.S. alone — were anything but. In fact, these cars used “defeat devices” to trick emissions-testing devices into believing the vehicles were meeting standards. As a result, VW deceived both regulators and consumers, and may have caused dozens of people to die as a result of the additional toxins released into the air because of their cars.

In addition to these lingering automotive dramas, there is the still-unresolved Takata airbag issue, which involves potentially lethal safety devices in millions of cars made by a wide variety of manufacturers. So far, nine deaths have been linked to the defective airbags — which can spew shrapnel when they explode — with eight of those coming from just the U.S.

Looking ahead to 2016, you can expect to see a concerted push from safety advocates and legislators to hold car makers (and their suppliers) more accountable for their failings.

#3: What’s In Your Food?

Image courtesy of Corey Templeton

At a time when we’re more aware than ever about food safety and the need for proper handling and storage, we still see major companies — Costco and Chipotle in just the past couple of months — hit with outbreaks of E. coli and other nasties, sickening customers all over the country and making people even more concerned about the food they buy.

After decades of warnings from doctors and researchers, a growing number consumers are beginning to demonstrate concern about the huge amount of antibiotics being fed to cows, pigs, and poultry — a practice that only encourages the development of drug-resistant bacteria, aka “superbugs,” that sicken millions, and kill thousands of Americans each year.

Farm animals consume about 75% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S., almost all of it sold without a prescription or veterinary feed directive. And with increased demand for meat products in fast-developing countries like China, Brazil, and India, it’s expected that antibiotic overuse is poised to pose a global health concern.

A more controversial subject for 2016 is going to be genetically modified and genetically engineered food. The FDA recently approved the first GE animal — a salmon — for sale as a food item in the U.S., but said it could not require any special labeling because the fish is not nutritionally different from its non-GE counterpart.

A rider attached to the end-of-year federal spending bill does compel the FDA to create a label specifically for this fish. Opponents say that such a requirement is alarmist and anti-science. Supporters of labeling argue that the label only allows consumers to make the choice on their own.

In 2016, we expect to see pro-GMO campaigns intended to highlight the science behind these foods. At the same time, we predict we’ll continue to see calls for more transparency and labeling about GE foods and ingredients.

#4: Net Neutrality Showdown v. 2.0

Image courtesy of Steve

In early 2014, Verizon successfully convinced a federal appeals court to gut the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which first established the “net neutrality” rules preventing Internet service providers from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing content.

Rather than appeal the matter further up the legal ladder, the FCC chose instead to take a second stab at the rules. This time, it took the controversial step of reclassifying broadband as a “Title II” common carrier, much like landline phone service.

Now neutrality is back in court again, facing lawsuits filed by AT&T and others, claiming — among other things — that the FCC is restricting ISPs’ First Amendment rights.

Regardless of who wins this first round of the new neutrality battle, we’re predicting that the matter will ultimately end up being decided by the nine robed justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As that legal war wages, expect to see the FCC making smaller decisions about related matters, like whether or not “zero rating” deals — in which an ISP doesn’t count the data used for certain content providers — count as a violation of the neutrality rules, or whether it’s just a new way to deliver data.

#5: The Student Loan Time Bomb

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Student loan debt in the U.S. has long since passed the $1 trillion mark. At the same time, a number of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges — responsible for the largest chunk of federal student loan borrowing — are either failing or are under investigation for questionable practices.

We’ve already seen the collapse of Corinthian Colleges — the company behind for-profit education chains like Everest, WyoTech, and Heald — and the subsequent sale of some campuses to Educational Credit Management Corporation.

In December, the federal government forgave more than $100 million in student loans for thousands students who attended CCI schools. However, that’s a small fraction of the billions in outstanding loans from current and recent CCI students.

And CCI wasn’t the only problem child in the for-profit playground. The parent company of industry biggie University of Phoenix recently lost its ability to participate in tuition assistance programs for active-duty military personnel. Executives at ITT Educational Services have been charged with fraud by the federal government. And Education Management Corporation, the operator of Brown Mackie College, Argosy University, and the Art Institutes, agreed to pay $95.5 million to settle claims it violated state and federal False Claims Act provisions regarding its recruiting practices. Yet these companies still managed to receive billions of dollars in federal aid money in 2014.

At the same time, the for-profit college industry has tried to fight the government’s attempt to hold them more accountable. Though they succeeded in scuttling the Department of Education’s first attempt to draft a gainful employment rule — requiring these schools to demonstrate that a certain percentage of their graduates are able to obtain meaningful work after finishing their education — the administration eventually finalized the rules in late 2014.

The industry tried to fight the rules in court. When that failed, industry-backed lawmakers tried to undercut the rule through legislation, slapping on amendments to federal spending bills that would have blocked Education officials from implementing the requirements. In the end, that too failed.

We’ve not yet hit bottom on the issue of student loans, for-profit college, and holding schools accountable — and we may not hit it in 2016 — but there will undoubtedly be plenty of stories about these topics as we keep digging.

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