Kate M. Growley

On Monday, the Senate passed Resolution 110, calling for the development of a national strategy that incentivizes and accelerates the country’s use of the “Internet of Things,” or IoT.  The Resolution comes amidst increased attention on the IoT industry, including the first Congressional hearings on the subject in both the House and the Senate.  The discussion has centered around the question of whether and to what extent the U.S. Government should regulate the burgeoning industry. 

Two sides line the debate.  The pro-regulation camp argues that the dangers that IoT technology may present – privacy mishaps first among them – demand some form of regulatory protection.  Those on the other side of the IoT aisle, however, warn that the industry is much like a very young Internet and that regulation runs the risk of stifling innovation before the country can reap its benefits.

The Resolution suggests that, for now, the Senate’s position leans more towards the latter than the former.  To start, it is plainly pro-IoT.  The three-page Senate Resolution dedicates almost half of its text to extolling the benefits of IoT technology – trillions of dollars in economic opportunity, empowering consumers across all aspects of their lives, untapped efficiencies and cost-savings across the economy, and so on.

At the same time, it appears less decidedly pro-regulation.  The Resolution acknowledges that the IoT “represents a wide range of technologies that are governed by various laws, policies, and governmental entities” but then proceeds to emphasize the role that multi-stakeholder processes can play in shaping its future.  That is, “the United States should recognize the importance of consensus-based best practices and communication among stakeholders.”  The Resolution limits its discussion of the role of government to noting only how it should “commit itself” to using IoT technology.  It also appears to give short shrift to the privacy fears that bolster calls for regulation.  The closest the Resolution comes to addressing such concerns is a quick reference to “responsibly protect[ing] against misuse.”

Others in Washington have sent mixed signals on how the Government should best approach the IoT.  Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) released a report on the IoT, urging Congress to pass consumer privacy legislation.  In fact, the Senate’s Resolution comes on the heels of the FTC’s announcement on Monday of a newly expanded Office of Technology Research and Investigation, which will focus on consumer protection in the IoT space, among others.  There is also the recent Federal Communications Commission net neutrality ruling, which treats the Internet much like a public utility, despite similar criticism that such heavy regulation will unnecessarily halt innovation.

On the other hand, just last month, President Obama issued an executive order directing the National Telecommunications & Information Administration to craft a voluntary code of conduct addressing privacy concerns surrounding another fledgling but controversial  technology – commercial drones.

The state of play is thus too muddled to predict how Washington will tackle the IoT.  One thing is for sure though:  Like the IoT industry, the conversation is only just getting started.