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Ten… top tech cock-ups of 2012

Twelve months of corporate clods, government bumblers, and half-arsed hackers

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6. SOPA/ACTA/PIPA fiasco

This could have been the year that internet rights took a nosedive, thanks to a series of regulations such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and commercial treaties such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)

SOPA and PIPA were American inventions, put forward by Big Media's Congressional minions to try and bolster up a business model that's failing fast in the face of internet development. ACTA had the same Big Media sponsors, but it was a transnational trade agreement rather than direct legislation.

Thankfully for most of us, all these attempts failed thanks to a combination of user activism, technology lobbying dollars, and bad management by legislators and governments. As the year draws to the close all the regulations that looked so worrying have been stymied – but it could have gone very differently.

SOPA and PIPA initially looked like they would get through Congress without much difficulty. True, there were the usual naysayers, but with a political deal or two the pair of legislative actions looked likely to pass this year. Although large sections of the media barely covered the issue, word got out about the proposed changes, and companies such as Google and Facebook got onside.

Wikipedia and a host of other sites went dark for a day in protest over SOPA's website-takedown powers, security experts pointed out damning flaws, and legislators started to get nervous. Meanwhile, Google and others were using their increasing lobbying muscle to work from the inside.

In SOPA's case, even the White House expressed disapproval, prompting an angry rant from Rupert Murdoch and dark threats from the Motion Picture Ass. of America. But by January the game was up, and both bits of legislation were shelved.

But only a week later, ACTA was signed by 26 governments, and a lot of the same people who were protesting about SOPA transferred their attentions to the treaty. The signing itself was hardly auspicious, as the EU negotiations monitor resigned in protest at the way debate had been stifled.

ACTA started life in the Bush presidency and was originally billed as a way to stop the trade in counterfeit goods, but quickly got expanded to include digital rights management and a host of other goodies that industry wanted sorted out. All the negotiations were conducted in strict secrecy, with only government negotiators and industry bodies getting to see the draft treaty.

Secrecy sometimes has its advantages, but as draft recommendations started to leak out, many interested parties got increasingly worried. Some early drafts called for customs officers to be drafted to search travelers' goods for stolen or pirated material. Those involved in the treaty made reassuring noises, but still refused to open the process. Fears grew.

When it came to signing off on the final ACTA treaty, it looked as though this closed process had worked. Here in the US it looked like a done deal – the Obama administration argued that as this was a trade treaty it didn't need a vote from elected representatives - but thankfully Europe still holds truck with this messy democracy business.

There were public demonstrations in the streets of European capitals over ACTA, with members of the Polish parliament staging their own. Several countries that signed off on the treaty expressed doubts about its contents, and national governments like Germany postponed ratifying it until the European Parliament had voted on the matter.

European commissioners tried to delay any voting until the fuss had calmed down, but that calming wasn't happening. When member states actually got to cast a vote, ACTA was declared dead in the water and the treaty's other signatories were left with a useless piece of paper.

You could argue – and you'd be right – that there was a lot of useful stuff in SOPA/PIPA/ACTA. We are going to need to take a good look at how rights and property are managed in an online world. But it's clear that one-sided regulation isn't the way to do it.

5. Top-dog CIA email bungling

If you're the head of the CIA, it might be expected that you'd know something about email security. Not so in the case of David Petraeus.

In November the head of the CIA was forced to resign after it was revealed that he'd had an affair with his biographer. One has to wonder at the poor vetting procedures at the CIA that failed to spot this, since the news leaked only after some email shenanigans using Petraeus' account were reported to an FBI agent.

It appears that Petraeus and his paramour were exchanging messages by a simple method – one that's used by criminals for years – of writing a draft email, saving it, and then handing over email login details to the recipient so they can read it and reply without actually sending a traceable email message.

While this does mean handing over your email account details to a third-party, it eliminates an email trail. What is doesn't do is stop your paramour looking though your email account, finding details of someone who they consider a rival, and abusing information in that account. Considering Petraeus' day job, the account could also have contained very sensitive material.

A subsequent investigation found out about Petraeus' dirty little secret – and the news came out just after President Obama's election, which gave conspiracy theorists something else to natter about. Petraeus resigned because of the affair; although I can't help feeling the lack of security should have been the reason for his resignation.

4. RIM's roller coaster

RIM was going to be higher up on the list, but the company has showed remarkable resilience under the leadership of CEO Thorsten Heins, appointed back in January of 2012.

RIM was in serious trouble when company stalwarts and co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis quit in January and Heins took over. The company had rested on its laurels too long and was losing to Android and Apple because it hadn't grasped the changing nature of the smartphone market. BlackBerry 10, the OS to rebuild the company, was delayed until 2013 and its stock price and revenues were in the toilet.

Meanwhile, its attempt to break into the tablet market with the PlayBook was a dismal failure, and decent sales were only achieved by such savage discounting that RIM was losing money on each device sold. Developers weren't keen on it, either.

While the company is still hemorrhaging revenues, it does look in slightly better shape at the end of the year than at the start. Heins' efficiency plan and mass redundancies have let it with a healthier balance sheet, and it's still growing its subscriber numbers year-on-year. Meanwhile RIM's new handset looks very interesting and developers are getting paid to code for it.

It all now hinges on next year. RIM has a cash reserve of around $3bn to try to buy its way back into the smartphone market, and there are still a lot of enterprises that like BlackBerry and which might be persuaded to stay. If Heins can pull it off, his RIM resuscitation would make him a hot property in the CEO market.

3. Metro or Not-Metro?

When is a Metro interface not a Metro interface? When someone at Microsoft screws up, it appears.

As Microsoft geared up for the launch of Windows 8, it was trying to sell the world on a user interface it called Metro. This UI consists of large tiles for use by thick-fingered fondleslab buyers whom Ballmer & Co. hoped would fall in love with the new look and propel Redmond forward to a bright new age of consumer domination.

Then in August, just a few short months before the launch, Microsoft announced it was dropping the term Metro to describe the interface, and said this had just been a codename all along. For most of the year journalists and the public had been told about Metro and Metro-style apps, but now we were all told to forget it ever happened.

It has been suggested that someone at Microsoft hadn't done their trademarking due diligence and had missed the fact that someone had already had the rights to the term Metro – such as the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens that runs Paris' famous Metro railway system.

The suggested alternative term – "Windows 8 Store Apps" – hardly rolled off the tongue. It was also inaccurate: where did it leave applications that aren't sold via the store. Developers at this year's BUILD conference also expressed no joy on the topic.

Sadly, Microsoft chose not to go with El Reg's suggestion: The Interface Formerly Known As Metro, or TIFKAM.

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