Home PublicationsCommentary What Congress Wants to Know About the Internet of Things

What Congress Wants to Know About the Internet of Things

by Joshua New
Internet of Things hearing

From left to right: Morgan Reed, Mitch Bainwol, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Gary Shapiro, and Dean Garfield.

Today lawmakers asked a panel of witnesses, all industry representatives, about the current and future challenges facing the Internet of Things, and what role, if any, Congress should play in addressing these concerns. With three hearings in just six months, Congress is on a mission to figure out how it should handle this emerging technology. Despite recent claims that Washington is “freaked out” by the Internet of Things, the hearing held this week by the House Judiciary Committee made it clear that at least some in Congress on both sides of the aisle want to see the technology thrive. Two issues in particular dominated policymakers’ attention: spectrum and security.

Several committee members expressed concern that with millions of new devices communicating wirelessly with each other every year, airwaves will become too clogged for these devices and services to be useful. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, how much of the available spectrum is currently in use to support all the connected devices in the room—cell phones, smart watches, televisions, microphones, and so on. The answer? Not much. Shapiro and other panelists agreed that more unlicensed spectrum—spectrum that users can operate in without a license from the Federal Communications Commission—would be a boon for innovation, allowing companies to more freely experiment with new applications for the Internet of Things. Better still, noted Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, would be an approach that makes both licensed and unlicensed spectrum available for a broad array of Internet of Things applications.

Policymakers were also curious about the steps the private sector is taking to secure the Internet of Things and if there was a need for Congress to take action. Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and Garfield both discussed how open standards support both security and interoperability, and suggested that Congress let industry develop these standards. Witnesses were unanimous in their opposition to the idea of mandatory backdoors in the encryption used by the Internet of Things. Such mechanisms, they argued, would actually expose consumers to greater security risks and thus discourage adoption. Morgan Reed, executive director of ACT – The App Association, pointed out that this type of overzealous government action hurts U.S. technology companies conducting business in other countries and weakens U.S. competitiveness.

In response to a question from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), panelists emphasized the importance of allowing different industries to develop their own rules. Bainwol argued that consumers’ concerns about security in cars were unique, and Garfield echoed this sentiment, saying that the Internet of Things was massive and regulators should address on a sector-by-sector basis. Reed suggested that the Federal Trade Commission was likely the best suited to handle privacy and security challenges as they arise, lest overbroad rules clash with industry best practices. Bainwol also urged that while policymakers should take new security concerns seriously when they come to light, they should not get caught up in the sensationalism that often surround such issues.

Unfortunately, the proposal to develop a national strategy for the Internet of Things, an idea raised in both House and Senate resolutions earlier this year, did not receive much air time. Garfield rightly pointed out that the United States needs such a strategy to help policymakers create the best environment possible for the Internet of Things, though no committee members explored the issue further. A national strategy could serve to not only spur the growth of the technology, but also proactively address many of the concerns raised at this and previous hearings. It is reassuring to see Congress eager to learn about the Internet of Things, but as the opportunities from this technology grow, policymakers should act quickly to turn these findings into an actionable roadmap to ensure that the United States does not miss out on the Internet of Things’ enormous benefits.

As Garfield noted, if policymakers get this right, “the Internet of Things has the potential to be one of the most transformative technological innovations in human history.”

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