Senate Panel Generally Agrees IoT Needs Light Touch

There was much talk on Capitol Hill Wednesday about farmers, floods, clouds, milk and cookies, but it was not an agriculture hearing but an Internet of Things panel that generated those topics.

The hearing was on "The Connected World: Examining the Internet of Things" (IoT) in the Senate Commerce Committee, and hit a variety of topics including TV white spaces, net neutrality, rural broadband and security and privacy, and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said IoT may be the most important technology trend around, and he did not get any naysayers.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called for tough new regulations on cars, but generally there seemed to be a lot of bipartisan agreement that the government needs to apply a light touch to the space, and that public-private partnerships are the best way to craft a strategy for tapping into the consumer value-added, jobs, and projected trillions of dollars from an Internet-connected world while still protecting security and privacy and consumer control over information.

In what might have appeared to be a case of political role reversal, Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) was one of those calling for partnerships with industry, a light government touch and not overregulating, while Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) was concerned about all the data being collected and where it was going and who was using it.

And Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), for example, the new ranking member of the Communications & Internet Subcommittee also talked about a light touch. And while one witness talked about China being ahead of the U.S. in planning for an IoT world, Schatz pointed out that in China that plan might be more government-driven than the American free market model would be comfortable with, a point Republicans frequently make when countries like Korea are held up as models of Internet deployment.

Republican Steven Daines of Montana was no fan of overregulation, but did raise issues about protecting kids information and the fact that they were the faster digital adopters and thus harder for some parents to monitor and protect.

The farm references came in relation to testimony from Lance Donny, CEO of OnFarm. The cloud he was referring to was where data on crops and temperatures could be stored and analyzed. The flood was the flood of data that needed to be processed, or as another witness put it, the "data obesity problem."

Most legislators on both sides of the aisle talked about the importance of freeing up more unlicensed spectrum to feed the Internet of Things beast. Donny encouraged the FCC to open more White Spaces (between TV channels) for unlicensed to help farmers more cheaply move data around.

The "milk" and "cookies" — actually "supercookies" — was part of an exchange between ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and witnesses over how all that information being collected by smart devices could be used by third parties. He said it was one thing that his refrigerator could tell him he was out of milk, but another if it told the grocery store for marketing purposes.

That was a segue for Nelson into his concerns about Verizon's use of "supercookies," which relay info to third parties. He pointed out that AT&T had backed off its use but that Verizon was still "studying" them.

Nelson and others wrote to Verizon with their concerns about the "supercookies, and when they did not like the answers, urged the FCC and FTC last week to investigate them.

Nelson also raised concerns, echoed by others, about Samsung's smart TV and its ability to record voices in a room and share those conversations with third parties — the idea is that the TV uses the recorded voices to improve its voice-recognition function.

There was the general disagreement over whether information collection regimes should be opt out or opt in for consumers — the witnesses came down 3-2 in favor of opt in, but no disagreement that security and privacy are key issues.

Adam Thierer of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, warned most strongly against overregulating, and argued for better informing consumers about their options. "[T]he first order of business is for policymakers to send a clear green light to entrepreneurs letting them know that our nation’s default policy position remains ‘innovation allowed,'" he said. "Second, we should avoid basing policy interventions on hypothetical worst-case scenarios, or else best-case scenarios will never come about. Our policy regime, therefore, should be responsive, not anticipatory.”

Markey was not happy with the responses he got from car companies about how they were protecting consumers in a connected-car world.

He said that of the 16 (of 20) major car companies who had responded to his questions, only two had the ability to identify and react to hacks, hacks that can not only unlock cars and honk horns but also control steering and cut the brakes, leading to catastrophic consequences.

Markey said there were no rules of the road to protect driver privacy, security and safety, but he would soon be introducing a bill that required the NHTSA and the Federal Trade Commission to come up with federal standards to provide the equivalent of IoT airbags and seat belts.

That would include requirements that all wireless access points are protected, information is secure and encrypted, that hackers can be detected in real time, and that drivers can control third-party access to their information.

Justin Brookman, from the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed that consumers need to be in the driver's seat when it comes to control of their in-vehicle information. He said while his car needs to know another car is coming toward it, it does not to need to know it is "Adam's black SUV."

Cable operators and intelligent transportation backers have bumped heads over freeing up more WiFi in the 5 GHz band, where intelligent auto spectrum is located. Not surprisingly, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters stood up for the car companies. He said all that car connectivity meant fewer crashes, lower emissions, better fuel economy and more.

He said NHTSA has estimated such technology could reduce non-driver impaired crashes by up to 80%. But to do that, he said, the 5 GHz band needs to be preserved for its use. He pointed out that some of his colleagues have expressed an interest in using that band for unlicensed WIFI, but cautioned that could only happen after interference testing that showed V-to-V communications are fully protected.

He also pointed out that the auto industry had come up with a set of privacy principles and practices and to share cybersecurity threats in real time.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.