Photograph by Win McNamee — Getty Images
By Stacey Higginbotham
June 29, 2015

The Internet of things has gone to Washington and the Capitol has responded with confusion and fear. This week Politico devoted an entire issue of its new magazine to the internet of things, and the content vacillates between trying to get politicians to understand the issue and making sure they are scared out of their minds at the technological change headed for us all.

Add to the Politico issue a column that ran Monday in the Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa that claims that when your fridge stops ordering you cheesecakes because your scale told it you were overweight, the internet of things will have gone too far. Apparently it’s open season on scaremongering in D.C.

These stories suss out how much politicians know about the internet of things (some are confused and some have FitBits!) and tell us that our privacy – or in Wadhwa’s case, our free will – is about to disappear. But what’s lost is the nuance of how governments should respond. Not only do these articles paint a somewhat unrealistic sense of what is likely to occur using the internet of things, they neglect to offer concrete solutions for managing what is an inevitable shift in how our society will operate.

In the 15 stories the Politico mag The Agenda offers, more than half are designed to scare with headlines like “Your Fridge is Spying on you” (what is with the fear of fridges?) or “I coined ‘Internet of Things.’ Now I think it’s the first big tech race the U.S. might lose.” Only one is designed to offer any actual solutions and is a Q&A with a lawyer on how to regulate the Internet of things.

But before we get to regulation, it’s clear that people in D.C. aren’t sure what the heck the internet of things is. From a story focusing on what Washington D.C. knows about the Internet of things:

When I stopped Rep. Sean Duffy to ask about some of the privacy and security issues central to the IOT, the Wisconsin Republican and former MTV ”Real World” star — who fashions himself as tech savvy and who is known to take selfies with anyone — looked up quizzically: “The Internet of Things? What the hell is that?”

Or there’s this quote from Rep. Darrell Issa, who co-chairs the recently created Internet of Things Caucus, and is pictured in the story draped in connected devices.

“There’s 435 members of the House, 100 members of the Senate, and most of them still don’t know what the Internet of Things is.”

So first, the tech industry and the D.C. media need to educate politicians about what’s coming and what it can enable without the scare tactics. At its core the internet of things has the potential to generate more data than we can ever imagine from any connected device be it a light bulbs or a connected car. Given that, here are the three essential takeaways Washington politicians and regulators should keep in mind:

  • The end of silos: One of the articles in The Agenda sums this fact up nicely noting that Washington D.C. is having a hard time with the Internet of things, because the entire point is that it is decentralized and can connect anything. Meanwhile D.C. is all about regulating things in silos, based on industries or political parties. You can’t regulate the Internet of things. You can only make laws that will establish outcomes across whole swaths of industry that address potential problems.
  • The end of sampling: Thankfully for those concerned about the end of silos, the Internet of things also represents the end of sampling, whether it’s in opinion polls or data about who is using the public highways. When homes, roads, offices and even citizens are connected it’s possible to get real-time information from every device and make more educated decisions. This means that policy-makers can quickly see the impact of their laws and regulations on constituents and allocate resources more wisely. It also means that the U.S. could move toward a surveillance state relatively cheaply.
  • Security is a bigger issue: Anytime you connect something to the Internet, you open it up to attack, which means that security can’t be an afterthought or the first thing cut when costs get too high. Business, governments and manufacturers will have to shift to a new way of thinking around security that takes into account the new reality. Experts are still figuring out what the new security architecture should look like, but while they do so, it’s up to Washington to push companies to safeguard their users’ privacy and data, while also establishing rules for reporting and disclosure.

Once devices are connected to the Internet, they will eventually be connected to each other. That interconnectedness plus machine learning will enable the Internet of things to become more proactive, and perhaps we will see a fridge that can conspire against you, or a light bulb that can share your political preferences as one of the Politico stories proposes. But for now, Washington should focus on learning what the Internet of things is today and then figure out how to use it to improve the role of government in people’s lives. I wish the media had focused a bit more on that and less on our future fridges.

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