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The politics of things: Policymakers must help shape the IoT

Saverio Romeo, principal analyst at Beecham Research, explores the role of policymakers in the rapidly expanding internet of things

The role of policymakers and regulators in technology development and deployment has not been insignificant or gone unnoticed. But while policy and regulation can be a strong driver for innovation and adoption of new technologies, it can also prove to be an inhibitor if the process becomes long, tedious and entrenched in excessive bureaucratic red tape.

The EU eCall Directive for the automotive sector, for example, requires all new cars to be equipped with eCall technology from April 2018. It is widely recognised as a policy initiative having a substantial impact on technology and industry.

In the event of a serious accident, eCall automatically dials 112, Europe’s single emergency number. Yet, despite the positive intentions of the directive, the practical implementation of eCall has been problematic, with multiple delays causing a level of uncertainty and confusion in the industry.

As the internet of things (IoT) continues to show its transformative potential for industries and society, the debate on the role of policy is becoming more relevant and vocal. It is not simply about acting on specific sectors – automotive with eCall, energy with smart metering, and others – but it is also about looking into the wider interconnection of devices, systems and networks. IoT interconnection is based on data, and it has been said in the IoT policy debate that data is the IoT infrastructure.

In this systemic scenario, and assuming the role of policy is important for the future of the IoT, the key questions include: what type of policy framework is necessary, and is the current policymaking process equipped to respond to the transformation offered by the IoT vision?

The differing pace of development between technology and the policy has been evident in recent years, with policymaking organisations chasing and trying to keep pace with rapid development in social media, for example.

The IoT presents the same challenges. The fact it is based on a set of fast-moving technologies will exacerbate the difference unless the current debate on IoT policy embraces the necessary changes in the policymaking process, at any level.

Question of security

Unless these fundamental questions are left largely unanswered, the debate around IoT policy will remain centred around the important issue of security. If data is the infrastructure, this means that IoT data has the potential to influence all kinds of economic, social and civic activity. Therefore, data security in the IoT is crucial.

We have also seen IoT devices being used as backdoors to computer networks and systems as well as IoT devices being used for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. So, how do we ensure security in the IoT and what policy initiatives are required?

Both security by design and security standards are being discussed along with the active debate on data privacy. There is a minefield of ethical issues to consider with data privacy. Is the type of information being processed intimate/private? Who can see this information? Do people have a choice on the types of data collected and what is done with it?

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From an ethical standpoint, technologies and systems that enable personal choice are better than those that do not; and technologies and systems that allow fine-grained choices at different points are better than those that offer only a one-off, single chance to agree or disagree.

One way of ensuring privacy is with privacy by design. This means addressing privacy concerns at the design stage of technologies, processes and systems and collecting only the amount of data necessary to fulfil the specific functions of the device or system that people have signed up for.

Policy frameworks

There is also active discussion on defining policy frameworks for supporting the adoption and diffusion of IoT strategies across organisations, with particular attention on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Other areas where policymakers and regulators are getting involved is in defining policy frameworks for supporting research, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well for the use of IoT in specific sectors. For example, in Germany there are EU initiatives around Industry 4.0 and Smart Factories and Farming 4.0 for Smart Farming.

There are also policy discussions around ensuring IoT is designed with the objective of sustainable development, ensuring accessibility for the disabled and underserved, and encouraging civic and democratic participation. Other ethical themes revolve around the relationships between humans and connected spaces and whether there is a right not to be connected in intelligent spaces?

It is without question that there are policy issues that must be addressed in the ongoing development of IoT, but the negative influence of policymaking and regulatory process involvement in the IoT’s rapid development and deployment may end up outweighing the positives. Unless the current debate on IoT policy first takes a close look at the policymaking process and framework, the difference in pace between technology development and policymaking may prove to slow down the IoT’s transformative potential rather than support and drive it forward.

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