Feds Want Flexible Policy to Regulate the Internet of Things

Legislators see the need for regulating the Internet of Things, but are wary of discouraging innovation in the world of connected devices.

by / December 5, 2014

The Internet of Things (IoT) needs to be regulated, but the ground rules must not stifle innovation, according to some federal lawmakers.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; and Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., all stressed the need for policymakers to take a light but firm hand on how to address the benefits and complex data security and privacy issues associated with machine-to-machine communication as connected technology continues to expand worldwide.

The foursome delivered their remarks at the Center for Data Innovation’s “How Can Policymakers Help Build the Internet of Things?” event on Thursday, Dec. 4, in Washington, D.C. They cited a plethora of statistics noting that more than 37 billion intelligent devices will be online and connected by 2020, and 90 percent of the world’s data has been generated just in the last two years.

As a result, the assembled elected leaders presented a united front encouraging education on IoT and the need for immediate policymaking on the topic before becomes too cumbersome to appropriately regulate.

“First, policymakers can’t bury their heads in the sand and pretend this technological revolution isn’t happening, only to wake up years down the road and try to micromanage a fast-changing, dynamic industry,” Fischer said. “Second, the federal government must also avoid regulation just for the sake of regulation. We need thoughtful, pragmatic responses and narrow solutions to any policy issues that arise.”

Ayotte agreed, adding that the IoT is an opportunity for economic growth and could be the driving strength of a renewed emphasis on manufacturing in the U.S. Ayotte said she and her fellow lawmakers must create an environment that fosters innovation instead of thwarting its growth.

“Governments shouldn’t be a deterrent to job creation and innovation,” she said.

Ayotte, Fischer, Schatz, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. – all of whom are members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation – have written Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Ranking Member John Thune, R-S.D., for an oversight hearing next year on the future of the IoT and wearable technologies.

DelBene’s keynote addressed how outdated the United States’ current laws are regarding communication. She said there is a disparity about how physical and electronic documents are treated in terms of privacy and said privacy and data security was paramount in regulating the IoT.

The Washington state representative also stressed a need for ongoing dialog between innovators and lawmakers to help them better understand the nuances of how technology will affect peoples’ daily lives.

DelBene worked for Microsoft in the 1980s and noted that more tech people are involved in policymaking now. But she was adamant that influx of innovators in the legislative process needs to continue growing so that people think of technology as something embedded in everyday life, as opposed to just high-tech tools.

Schatz echoed DelBene’s concerns over the data privacy and security risks associated with the IoT. He said that a team of University of Michigan researchers recently found that network traffic lights are susceptible to hacking, providing further proof that some sort of regulatory scheme is necessary for machine-to-machine data.

But Schatz also said that while technologists and other people vested in the business of data are intimately familiar with the IoT's benefits and concerns, the general population isn’t – and that needs to change.

“Nobody knows what this is, but yet it’s incredibly important,” Schatz said. “Every second, nearly 100 things are being connected. The reality is that while few people know what IoT is, they are already exposed to it when they cross the street or wash their hands.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.