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Revisiting the top business stories of 2014

The top consumer stories of 2014? It depends on how you count and what you care about - or maybe even on where you sit.

Stephanie Erdman testifies at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing about airbag defects that injured her.
Stephanie Erdman testifies at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing about airbag defects that injured her.Read morePETE MAROVICH / Bloomberg News

The top consumer stories of 2014? It depends on how you count and what you care about - or maybe even on where you sit.

If you've been sitting, say, in the back seat of a Toyota in recent weeks - after the automaker's unusual advice to avoid the front passenger seat while waiting for back-ordered Takata airbag parts - then the year's topmost consumer story may be the series of disclosures about how the auto industry hides risky defects.

Were you one of roughly 10 million Americans who gained health insurance in 2014? Then Year One of Obamacare may seem the most important to you.

That's how it goes with consumer stories. They can matter deeply if you're directly affected, and less if you aren't - except if you can imagine being in the same boat. Or passenger's seat.

With that in mind, five nominees for the year's top consumer stories:

Vehicular defects. There's a flip side to the fact that most products are usually safe. When they aren't - say, when a car part seems to fail only under certain conditions - some companies see that as a cost of doing business. And they're aided by a system that enables them to offer compensation in return for victims' silence - likely ensuring that more will be hurt.

That may be what happened with the Takata airbag inflators, which the company says can cause horrific, shrapnel-like injuries under persistently hot and humid conditions, and with an even larger General Motors problem that came to light this year: a faulty ignition switch that, with too much weight on a keychain, can suddenly cut a car's power, disabling airbags and causing drivers to lose control.

The irony is that cars in general have been getting safer, thanks to innovations such as stability control and automatic braking. Though 2012 was an exception, vehicular deaths have been dropping for most of the last decade. Early projections for 2014 follow that trend.

This year, more people probably worried while fewer died.

Obamacare, Year One. The law's first full-scale year began with an uproar over the faulty federal exchange. But once the website was fixed, it was remarkable mostly as an answer to years of hysteria: Obamacare worked pretty much as promised.

Gallup and other surveys showed a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who lack health insurance. The law apparently has helped slow the growth of health-care spending. And there are signs, as hoped, that it has reduced "job lock," the economic drag caused when people stay in jobs just for health insurance.

What's ahead in 2015? The Supreme Court faces yet another major challenge to Obamacare, and GOP lawmakers who could help make the law work better remain bent on its destruction. You can also expect Obamacare to continue to get blamed for problems it didn't cause, like the use of higher deductibles and narrower networks to cut costs.

Crackdown on abuses. The consumer world's youngest "cop on the beat," the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, continued its nuts-and-bolts enforcement in 2014, focusing on bad practices in businesses such as debt collection, student loans, and mortgages, as well as its big-picture focus, watching for signs of systemic abuse.

But it makes my list for 2014 partly for another reason: hints that it's pushing other agencies to get more aggressive. Just this month, for example, the bureau sued Sprint over cellphone "cramming" - the practice where companies allow third parties to stuff phone bills with sneakily small charges.

This isn't a new problem. The bureau contends Sprint was complicit - and taking a cut - from 2004 to 2013. Nor is it small or limited to Sprint or even to cellphones. A 2011 Senate report estimated 300 million small charges, totaling about $2 billion, appear each year on land-line bills.

Cramming has been targeted for years by agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission. It's high time it be labeled for what it is: financial abuse.

Comcast, Net neutrality, and the Net's future. No story better encapsulates consumers' concerns about the future of the Internet than the prospect of Comcast's growing larger in a merger with Time Warner Cable, which reportedly has prompted an astonishing 4 million comments to the FCC. Net neutrality, more esoteric, has also brought a flood.

Both topics stirred reaction in 2014 because they're about an industry that's at the center of both our economy and culture, and is already dominated by a handful of cable and phone companies. This is a story that will get even more important in 2015.

Data, data, data. One of my former editors used to talk about major stories that ooze rather than break, which is why I'd rank this story No. 1 for 2014. It includes stories huge all by themselves, like April's news of the Heartbleed bug, which was leaking data worldwide for two years; the recent Sony hacking that turned into an international incident; and a massive Home Depot credit-card breach that rivaled 2013's breach at Target.

But the data story isn't just about security. It's also about Big Data's ongoing war with privacy, especially as mobile devices become many people's primary means of going online. As consumers use their smartphones to access the Internet, you might say the Internet is also accessing and monitoring them.

University of Pennsylvania professor Joseph Turow says commercial tracking can be as simple as noting that you buy a lot of Tums and might have acid reflux, or as complex as tracking all your movements. All you have to do is agree to "locational tracking" on an app, and your movements everywhere could be for sale.

"What does it mean when people are only vaguely aware that as they move through the world they're being tracked?" Turow asks. "What does that do to a society?"

It's tough to imagine a story - in any year - that matters more.

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles