Washington dithers as IoT explodes

June 30, 2015

Washington is gearing up to contend with the Internet of Things. Darren Samuelsohn in Politico reports that 13 members of Congress have joined across party lines to form the Internet of Things Caucus. How is it progressing? It has yet to hold a meeting, reports Samuelsohn, even though the Obama administration has cited a rapidly closing window of opportunity for government to decide how to deal with a tech explosion in which 127 items added to the Internet each second. (See related post “How big is the IoT, and what does a 2012 census tell us?”)

Should the government be involved in regulating the IoT? In an attempt to address that question, Samuelsohn looks back to 1869 and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. That technology drove economic growth but also resulted in monopolies and complaints of corruption. Consequently, Samuelsohn writes, Congress created the first U.S. regulatory agency—the Interstate Commerce Commission. Other agencies followed, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Internet itself, Samuelsohn writes, has been lightly regulated. Congress did pass the Communications Decency Act, but its reach was restricted by the Supreme Court.

As for the IoT, Samuelsohn quotes Christopher Hill, a professor emeritus at George Mason University and expert on the nexus of policy and technological history, as saying, “This is the weirdest damn thing we have in the world in terms of governance at the moment, so it’s no wonder Congress can’t figure out how to get its arms around it. It’s not Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, or Sprint. It’s not Cisco. And it’s not Amazon. And it’s not Dell. Who the heck is it? That’s one of the problems we have. The ‘it’ in question is extremely diffuse.”

The IoT’s reach is so extensive that some regulation will be necessary, given the safety, privacy, and security issues involved. But the path ahead is far from clear. About the only concrete recommendation Samuelsohn was able to identify was the formation of a “blue-ribbon commission,” which even proponents worry could be nothing more than a make-work effort. For now, IoT regulatory efforts remain the domain of existing bodies, such as the FCC, FAA, FDA, and NHTSA.

Meanwhile, you are on your own in protecting your privacy and security. MIT professor Sanjay Sarma reports that he recently disconnected his wired home. “I realized that anyone could plug into the outlet on my deck and take control of my house,” he writes.

Politico has a special issue on the IoT that you can read here.


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