My Filing to the FTC in its ‘Internet of Things’ Proceeding

by on May 31, 2013 · 0 comments

In mid-April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requested comments regarding “the consumer privacy and security issues posed by the growing connectivity of consumer devices, such as cars, appliances, and medical devices” or the so-called “Internet of Things.” This is in anticipation of a November 21 public workshop that the FTC will be hosting on the same issue.

These issues are finally starting to catch the attention of the public and policymakers alike with the rise of wearable computing, remote home automation and monitoring technologies, smart grids, autonomous vehicles and intelligent traffic systems, and so on. The Internet of Things represents the next great wave of Internet innovation, but it also represents the next great battleground in the field of Internet policy.

I filed comments with the FTC today in this proceeding and made a few simple points about why they should proceed cautiously here. A summary of my filing follows.

Avoiding a Precautionary Principle for the Internet of Things

First, while it is unclear where the FTC is heading with this proceeding—or for that matter, whether this even a formal proceeding at all—the danger exists that it represents the beginning of a regulatory regime for a new set of information technologies that are still in their infancy. Fearing hypothetical worst-case scenarios about the misuse of some IoT technologies, some policy activists and policymakers could seek to curb or control their development.

Policymakers should avoid acting on those impulses. Simply put, the Internet of Things—like the Internet itself—should not be subjected to a precautionary principle, which would impose preemptive, prophylactic restrictions on this rapidly evolving sector to guard against every theoretical harm that could develop. Preemptive restrictions on the development of the Internet of Things could retard technological innovation and limit the benefits that flow to consumers.

In other words, to the maximum extent possible, the default position toward new forms of technological innovation such as the Internet of Things should be innovation allowed, or what Paul Ohm, who recently joined the FTC as a Senior Policy Advisor, refers to as an “anti-Precautionary Principle.” This policy norm is better captured in the well-known Internet ideal of “permissionless innovation,” or the general freedom to experiment and learn through trial-and-error experimentation. As I noted in a recent essay here:

Wisdom is born of experience, including experiences involving risk and the possibility of mistakes and accidents. Patience and openness to permissionless innovation represent the wise disposition toward new technologies not only because it provides breathing space for future entrepreneurialism, but also because it provides an opportunity to observe both the evolution of societal attitudes toward new technologies and how citizens adapt to them.

Adaptation Is Not Just Possible but Likely

Which leads to the next major point I make in my filing: Humans adapt! The more I study the history of various technological innovations the more I find the same story unfolding: again and again society has found ways to adapt to new technological changes by employing a variety of coping mechanisms or new social norms. In fact, we see a common cycle of initial resistance, gradual adaptation, and then eventual assimilation of new technologies into society. (I previously outlined this cycle in my law review article, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.”)

I offer several specific examples of this process in action—from the rise of the telephone and the camera to RFID and Gmail. I argue that these examples should give us hope that we will also find ways of adapting to the challenges presented by the rise of the Internet of Things.

Norms Evolve and “Regulate”

Third, my filing discusses how societal norms evolve in response to new technologies and even come to “regulate” acceptable use of those technologies. Law tends to regulate in sweeping ways and then get locked in. Social norms and technological etiquette, by contrast, flexibly evolve in unique ways over time.

Some of these norms or social constraints are more “top-down” and formal in nature in that they are imposed by establishments or organizations in the form of restrictions on technologies. In other cases, these norms or social constraints are purely bottom-up and group-driven. I offer examples of both types of norms in my filing.

Other Remedies Exist or Will Develop as Needed

Finally, I argue in my filing that policymakers should exercise restraint and humility in the face of uncertain change and address harms that develop—if they do at all—after careful benefit-cost analysis of various remedies. I note that many federal and state laws already exist that could address perceived harms associated with these technologies.

And let’s be clear: some misuses and harms will develop, just as they have for every other information technology ever invented. But, to reiterate, we have generally not preemptive applied precautionary regulation to each and every new information technology based on the potential threat of some misuses developing. Instead, we have allowed experimentation and innovation to take place largely unimpeded and then relied on a combination of education, user empowerment, various social norms and coping mechanisms, and then targeted laws as needed after serious harms were demonstrated. That same approach should govern the Internet of Things.

If we succumb to the opposite impulse and apply a “Mother May I?” permissioned approach to the Internet of Things—with innovation only being allowed after regulators deem those technologies “safe” or “acceptable”—then we risk derailing the next great wave of Internet-based innovation. The implications for America’s consumers and our global competitiveness could not be more profound. The result will be fewer services, lower quality goods, higher prices, diminished economic growth, and a decline in the overall standard of living.

Hopefully the FTC is not going down that path with this proceeding or its forthcoming workshop on the Internet of Things. But stay tuned. This set of issues is expanding rapidly and promises to produce heated privacy, security, and safety debates for many years to come.

Please read my filing for more details. I’ve also embedded it below.

Comments of Adam Thierer Mercatus Center in FTC Internet of Things Proceeding (June 2013)

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