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The Year in Web

Secrets are flying online, both state and personal, and Internet companies are still looking for ways to make money on applications—or with users’ private data.
December 29, 2010

Spies and the Internet

He Knows About You: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is gaining increasing control over users’ personal information and the advertising dollars that come with it.

The year started off with revelations from Google that China was attacking the Web giant’s corporate infrastructure (Google Reveals Chinese Espionage Efforts). The company said, among other things, that the attackers went after Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human-rights activists, and that 20 other large companies had also been targeted.

That was the first of many examples of how the Internet is changing the way secrets are being kept and revealed. In April, researchers from the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs detailed how over the course of several months social sites helped hackers steal classified documents from the Indian government (Social Sites Cover Chinese Hackers’ Tracks).

But the name that became synonymous with sharing secret information was Julian Assange’s Wikileaks (Everything You Need to Know About Wikileaks). In the summer, U.S. officials were still probing for the source of 91,000 war documents that the site had posted (The Hunt for the Wikileaks Whistle-Blower). At the end of the year, the site began to release a trove of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables. U.S. officials called for the site to be shut down, triggering a series of back-and-forth denial-of-service attacks by the site’s detractors and supporters (DIY Censorship).

Your Secrets

Even as large organizations struggled with the Internet’s capacity for collecting and revealing secrets, individuals fought a different version of the privacy battle. Social networking sites have continued to grow in popularity, and users are trusting them with more information than ever before. At the same time, those sites are looking to make money, and that often means selling data about users. Sites such as Facebook have made a number of changes to facilitate their business models, challenging users’ privacy in the process (The Changing Nature of Privacy on Facebook).

Google launched a new social network, Buzz, that drew fire when it automatically connected users to people they had previously e-mailed. Google frantically backpedaled and adjusted the social network’s features (A Steady Buzz of Changes).

Not all privacy violations resulted from decisions websites have made. In some cases, sites leaked data inadvertently, giving users more reasons to be concerned about the data that companies store (Peeking Into Users’ Web History).

Despite having many reasons to be vigilant, users were for the most part undeterred. Oddly, a study found that people are actually more likely to trust their information to sites that seem less likely to store it securely (How Websites Make You Spill Your Secrets).

The Right Ads for You

More than ever, Internet companies are looking to exploit information about users to serve targeted advertising. When Twitter revealed its long-awaited business model, which cautiously began serving ads to users, many observers argued that its biggest opportunity was in advertising targeted to people based on the information they’d been posting on the site (Will Twitter’s Ad Strategy Work?).

Advertisers have dozens of schemes to use social media to reach consumers more effectively (Advertisers Employ Social Media). Search engines are also getting into the game, hoping to predict which ads will be most effective (Fewer Ads, More Clicks).

Though social sites are generally considered to have the most valuable information about users and their preferences, even these sites are scrambling for more data. Experts believe, for example, that Facebook is trying to expand its messaging system in order to capture data that can earn it even more advertising dollars (Why Facebook Wants Your E-Mail).

Web Applications

Internet companies continued their efforts to get people to spend more time online. A new standard called HTML5 is intended to make it easy for websites to add video, animation, and other richer interactions (The Web Is Reborn). Companies that have noticed the success of Apple’s app store are hoping to get people to use and pay for applications for devices besides the iPhone. In many cases, they are using HTML5 to facilitate building these applications. Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Web browser, is exploring the idea of establishing an online store to sell apps for all devices (Can Mozilla Deliver an Open App Store?).

Google continues to push its vision of computing with little more than a browser. Instead of developing devices for users to load with files and software, Google has been designing an operating system that stores nearly everything online and relies on Web applications rather than software that resides on the machine. Its Chrome OS, which launched late in the year in a pilot program, has a companion app store whose wares highlight the power of the Web (The Browser Takes All).

There might, however, be more enthusiasm around app stores than there are customers. Companies that hope to sell Web-connected apps for set-top boxes, netbooks, and tablets need help attracting exhausted developers and customers (Filling Up Empty App Stores).

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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