It’s the opinion of much of the private world, and even some of Congress, that American government moves too slowly to properly legislate on quick moving technologies like the Internet of Things. However, a group of IoT experts Wednesday said the government could play a key partnering role in cultivating the Internet of Things’ growth and reaping the economic benefits therein.
The United States is trailing many of its biggest global technology competitors, including China, in the development of a national Internet of Things framework, said Douglas Davis, Intel’s vice president of IoT, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
“Other countries are aggressively investing in and deploying implementations to transform their economies, address societal problems and spur innovation,” Davis said, putting the likes of Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and the aforementioned China in front of the U.S. in capturing a large share of the forecasted multi-trillion dollar global Internet of Things market. If the U.S. can find a way to lead, he said, it could take a large chunk of the 70 percent of that market expected to go to developed countries.
But much of the discussion Wednesday, in addition to the typical concerns with security and privacy, concerned the inability of the federal government to legislate around the rapidly-evolving Internet of Things.
“In order to develop a plan in an American-style democracy, it may be a couple of years before we’re able to render one, and I don’t think we have enough time for that,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said, pointing out that the ability of countries like China to develop a national IoT would work differently “in the context of a free market and in the context of democracy.”
On the Republican side, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana questioned, “Can the federal government be helpful in regulating something I don’t think they even understand?” Daines said government moves at “glacial speeds,” whereas technology moves at “the speed of electrons.”
“I think they are going to have a really hard time regulating the Internet of Things,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “The Internet of Things moves at the pace of Moore’s Law and is doubling every 18 months, just like processors do. That sort of speed is going to be hard for us to set in stone any sort of rules that govern that innovation.”
Beyond specific regulation, Thierer said policymakers can “suggest efforts to educate consumers and make them aware of the potential security and privacy risks and vulnerabilities. Our government has a long track record of doing an excellent job of this in other contexts.”
And Davis agreed. “Trying to regulate it or legislate it, given the pace of technology and the pace of innovation, it’ll be tough to keep up,” he said. But there are ways government can aid private industry, Davis said, like “working with different industries to understand barriers and freeing those barriers, encouraging them to innovate in very specific areas, and also driving research.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., backed the idea of a public-private partnership — one that specifically doesn’t prohibit innovation out of fear.
“The very Internet itself is the result of a public-private partnership,” Booker said. “We should be doing everything possible to encourage this and doing nothing to restrict it. There’s a lot of legitimate fear, but in the same way that in every technological era there must have been incredible fears. Starting the airline industry — just human beings taking flight — had tremendous fears. For us to do anything to inhibit that leap in humanity to me seems unfortunate.”
When the Federal Trade Commission released an extensive report on the Internet of Things in January, some industry feedback paralleled Bookers view on stifling innovation. While FTC didn’t propose specific IoT legislation, it did support a broad push for privacy legislation that some worry may smother the private sector’s ability to innovate around data generated from IoT.
“While the FTC’s report correctly recognizes that the Internet of Things offers potentially revolutionary benefits for consumers and that the industry is still at an early stage, it unfortunately attempts to shoehorn old ideas on new technology by calling for broad-based privacy legislation,” Daniel Castro, the director of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Center for Data Innovation, said in a statement.
Industry and government continue to dance around finding good balance for privacy in what has become a “data obesity problem,” according to Michael Abbott, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
“Data is doubling in size every two years and expected to reach 44 zettabytes by 2020 — that’s 44 trillion gigabytes,” Abbott said Wednesday in his opening testimony. “To put that in perspective, we were at 4.4 zettabytes, just over a tenth of that, in 2013.”
Some policymakers feel companies don’t need that much data on consumers and think some are acting poorly with it, selling it to data miners and making more than $600 billion yearly, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said. “I can understand why companies don’t want privacy; it’s a big money maker.”
Despite the data generated by the Internet of Things being the lifeblood of its progress, the panel of IoT experts agreed that a little transparency could go a long way.
“On the privacy side, we’re primarily just asking for better transparency,” said Justin Brookman, the director of the Consumer Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Right now I have a device; it’s hard to figure out what it really does. At the very least it should be written down somewhere what the company does. If you can’t explain it in a statement, maybe you don’t understand what it’s doing, and that poses some privacy and security risks.”