A sign pointing the way to Internet access in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo credit: Anna Carol, under a Creative Commons license)

This year was a hugely momentous one in the evolution of the global network of networks we call the Internet. Since its creation as a side project of a handful of academics and military researchers in the United States some 50 years ago, the Internet has grown to encompass the whole world. But 2014 was in many ways a mixed bag for the Internet. It showed the Internet at its strongest, reaching more people, more ways than at any point in the past. But at the same time, it has also never been more threatened by everything from hackers to censors to autocrats newly attuned to the power of the online world.

1) The Internet has never been less free. In its early days, the Internet was thought of as a place where people around the world could live according to the principles of free expression and self-determination. But every year it is falling shorter of that ideal. The pro-democracy group Freedom House tallies global metrics for all sorts of online freedom, from the ability to experience an uncensored Internet to the healthy treatment of women online. In 2014, that scored dropped for the fourth year in a row.

That said...

2) A tremendous number of people came online for the first time this year. The number of regular Internet users grew by about 250 million people in just the last 12 months. That's like adding the entire population of the United States to the online world all at once -- or the number of people living in all of Russia, France, Kenya, and South Korea combined. More people connected means more of them benefiting from the wealth of what's available online.

On the other hand...

3) Even democracies abused the Internet. A March report from the group Reporters Without Borders identified government bodies around the world that are actively engaged in spying on what happens online. Some aren't surprising: Pakistan's main telecomm agency, North Korea's science branch, or China's chief information office. But that others exist within the confines of the planet's most celebrated democracies -- from the Centre for Development of Telematics in India to the National Security Agency in the United States -- reveals, says the group, a worrisome global "schizophrenic attitude" towards surveillance.

And yet...

4) The rights of the online citizen were enshrined. Five years ago, Brazil's ministry of justice and the country's legal community began work on a sort of Internet bill of rights for the people of that nation. This year, the product of that work, called the Marco Civil da Internet, was signed into law. It guarantees, among other things, the citizen's right to a robust Internet connection and strong online privacy protections. The first of its kind in the world, the landmark law stands up for the idea that online rights are to be cherished and protected like any other set of civil rights.

But...

5) Other countries turned informal Internet crackdowns into official rules and laws. In Russia, where bloggers are often some of the few voices speaking out against the Kremlin, new rules were adopted requiring those with even modest online followings to submit to the same restrictions as the mainstream media. In post-coup d'état Thailand, the military ordered Internet service providers to submit to its dictates. And in Somalia, the al-Shabab militia went one step further: in the parts of the country it controls, it formally banned the Internet altogether.

Still...

6) The World Wide Web passed the billion domain mark. In the early days of the World Wide Web -- the Internet's killer app -- there were so few Web sites that aficionados would hand-curate directories of everything that was neat, intriguing, or simply just available online. Just two decades later, it would take someone typing out a similar list of everything available online about 150 years. Barely into adulthood, the World Wide Web is remarkably robust and only getting more so.

On the other hand...

7) Hackers exposed the Internet's fundamental insecurities. No matter if it was the work of North Korea, disgruntled ex-employees, or other hackers, the recent breaching of Sony's computer networks was eye-opening. The Internet was built on trust. But it became inescapably clear this year just how far some are willing go to turn it into a global battleground. And the initial decision not to screen the movie at the center of the hack revealed that, when it comes to responding to online threats that move offline, we are frighteningly unprepared.

Even so...

8) Millions of people in the United States voiced their opinions on "net neutrality." Whatever side of the debate over the fair treatment of online content you are on, the unprecedented nearly 4 million comments received by regulators at the Federal Communications Commission were a remarkable display of how the once obscure policy issue has captured the attention of the American public. And while this was only the U.S. making laws, given the prime role the U.S. plays in the Internet, people all around the world paid close attention to its outcome.

Nonetheless...

9) Governments moved to splinter off their own piece of the digital world. More and more, leaders decided that it's easier for them to shape what happens online if they make sure that a greater part of it takes place within their borders. Some in Germany and Europe, for example, began entertaining the idea of a so-called "Schengen Zone" where Europeans' digital data, from e-mails to social media traffic, would be housed on servers within the confines of that continent. The Internet is one of the few things the people of the world share without regard to political boundaries. But increasingly dividing lines that carve up the rest of our lives are being imposed upon it.

Hang on...

10) Fighting for the Internet drove people into the streets. In Mexico in April, thousands formed a human chain to object to a telecommunications bill that would, among other things, allow the shutting down of the Internet during political protests. In Bolivia in May, activists crawled through roadways dressed as snails to protest slow Internet speeds. And in Hungary in October, people threw computers into the streets to protest a proposed tax on Internet use. The Hungarians won: the government backed down from the idea. In 2014, people around the world were willing to defend the Internet like any other political value they hold dear.

That, in fact, people seemed to have never been more passionate about the fate of the Internet is perhaps, the one main lesson from this past year in the Internet's life. And that likely bodes well for its future.