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Consumer 10.0: For much of 2010, focus was on consumers

Consumers lost homes and privacy, gained smartphones and e-readers, and shed innocent faith in such long-trusted companies as Toyota and Johnson & Johnson.

Consumers lost homes and privacy, gained smartphones and e-readers, and shed innocent faith in such long-trusted companies as Toyota and Johnson & Johnson.

They won new protections from Congress for their health care, food, and finances, and promises from regulators who vowed to share complaints about risky products and to preserve the openness and vitality of the Internet.

Philadelphia-area consumers faced up to anxieties over the end of Peco's longstanding caps on power prices, and to mixed feelings about another hometown company, Comcast, that wants to swallow up a controlling interest in NBC Universal - and, if you believe its toughest critics, swallow up the entire Internet with help from its cable- and phone-company compatriots.

For consumers, 2010 was plainly a red-letter year, thick with developments that would have been major news any other time but this year were eclipsed by recession, war, politics, and tea parties.

A handful were hotly debated as they broke, including the biggest of all: health care. Others slipped beneath the radar, with implications that may not be clear for years to come.

Health-care overhaul. Remember "ObamaCare," passed nine months ago by Congress without a single Republican vote? Of course you do. The year's most important consumer story was also one of 2010's biggest stories, period.

It's still making news, thanks to split decisions from federal judges on the constitutionality of the "individual mandate" to buy insurance, one of the key provisions of a law designed to provide near-universal coverage via the private market.

It's also still widely misrepresented. It should be no surprise that named the allegation that ObamaCare was "a government takeover of health care" as its "Lie of the Year."

The Affordable Care Act rolls out slowly, though some families, including my own, are already benefiting from provisions such as the extension of job-related insurance to adult children under 26. Other key provisions, including the mandate and new insurance exchanges, don't take effect for several years.

Meanwhile, the mandate is the focus of challenges that may ultimately rest on a reading of the Commerce Clause by a swing justice on an ideologically split Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy.

Let's hope Kennedy approves of it, since the system relies on getting everybody covered before something bad happens, and might be tossed out if the mandate falls. For a taste of let-the-market-rule alternatives, consider the suggestion by libertarian University of Chicago law professor Richard A. Epstein that we could simply "let any emergency room ask for a credit card at the point of service."

That would work for the financially solvent - once we all have credit card chips embedded in our necks to make payments after a car crash. Apparently he'd just let everyone else bleed out.

Of course, we don't do that, which is why we're in this situation in the first place, with the costs of the uninsured borne haphazardly. Sometimes, the laissez faire approach really doesn't work.

Toyota and McNeil Consumer Healthcare fall from grace. The Japanese carmaker and the Fort Washington maker of Tylenol and other familiar drugs both spent years building brand names synonymous with quality. Then bad stuff happened - this year's episode in the perennial story of how corporate choices affect consumers' well-being.

Toyota recalled millions of vehicles after reports of runaway vehicles and horrific crashes. As inquiries continue, it's still unclear whether the incidents can all be blamed on sticky gas pedals, loose floor mats, or confused drivers - Toyota's belief - or whether some rare electronic glitch might play a role.

Toyota appears to have turned the corner, partly by including a brake-override system in all its 2011 models, which means that a driver's attempt to stop should override any accidental engagement of the throttle.

Quality-control problems continue at McNeil, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that in April shut its Fort Washington plant and recalled more than 40 versions of children's and infant medicines after FDA inspectors found numerous violations.

But a stream of other recalls - including one this month of Rolaids made at a contract plant - show that the question at McNeil isn't what went wrong, but why.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A keystone of the Dodd–Frank Act, the CFPB is months away from its launch but already a lightning rod because of the woman President Obama hired to bring it to life: Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard bankruptcy scholar and champion of the beleaguered middle class.

Warren proposed the new agency, arguing that consumers need a "cop on the beat" to protect them from financial tricks and traps that often led to their expecting one price but paying much more.

Such practices aren't just unfair and deceptive. They were also building blocks of the financial crisis, as consumers were lured into products such as "exploding" adjustable-rate mortgages that fueled the furious bidding for houses and help justify equity-stripping refinancings.

Can more transparency and CFPB oversight help solve the problem? We may not know for years - or never if the result is a crisis averted.

The housing crisis. Like many other consumer issues, this one affects some people profoundly and others indirectly. But it's been among the leading consumer stories since 2007, and will probably remain there until the housing market clears.

The year's biggest housing story? The controversy over foreclosure documents prepared by so-called "robo-signers" - a story that shows how lenders who cut corners in approving mortgages as prices climbed were now cutting corners on foreclosures as they fell. Big surprise.

Network neutrality. OK, unless you're a geek like me, your eyes may glaze over at this topic. But if you think the Internet has dramatically affected your everyday life, this is a story that may matter to you for years to come.

In the Web's infancy, way back in the 1990s, neutrality ruled because data traveled on phone lines where it had long been required. But in the last decade, pressed by Comcast and other companies investing in broadband, the Federal Communications Commission edged away from it.

Now the FCC faces a puzzle: How can it foster innovation when start-ups seek a foothold in businesses, such as video and communications, already dominated by the network owners? How do you spell basic conflict of interest?

Last week, the FCC approved a new set of "open Internet protections," aiming to thread the needle between policy goals and powerful interests that have Congress' ear.

All I can say is stay tuned - and hope that your cable, phone, or wireless provider lets you.