Précis - The “internet of things” is a theory describing how the internet is evolving to interact with and connect objects as well as people.  The extent to which data is shared by such objects is the subject of a new consultation issued by the European Commission on rules for wirelessly connected devices.

What? - The internet has traditionally been dependent upon human beings to enter data.  It is becoming increasingly possible to access data on the physical environment through connected objects which are able to sense the environment and communicate through smart chips using Radio Frequency Identification (“RFID”) or other means such as linear and 2D barcodes.  The connection and entry of data can occur with or without human intervention, hence the “internet of things”.

The “internet of things” will allow objects to be tracked, potentially reducing waste and cost.  For example, we could know when bridges or cars need repairing thanks to embedded sensors, and we could check the contents of our fridges (which may even contain “smart” foods such as yogurt pots that record the temperature along their supply chain) remotely.

In 2006, the European Commission consulted on the development and use of RFID. It then adopted a Communication in March 2007 which indicated that RFID was only the beginning of a broader development of the “internet of things”.  In 2009, the European Commission outlined 14 actions to promote the evolution of this “internet of things” in the EU (available here).  Included in these action points are the standardisation of the technologies involved across Europe and better funding of research, as well as measures to protect people's privacy, data and security.

So what? - The European Commission considers that the “internet of things” requires a level playing field so that all players can compete equally, without gate keepers and locked-in users. It is consulting on:

  • what framework is needed to realise the benefits of the internet of things;
  • adequate levels of control of the objects accessing, processing and storing information; and
  • views on privacy, safety and security, security of critical supported infrastructure, ethics, interoperability, governance and standards.

The Commission wants to ensure that the rights of individuals are respected and launched a public consultation on 12 April, inviting comments by 12 July 2012.  This public consultation will feed into a new Recommendation on the internet of things to be published in 2013.

The Commission’s consultation is only a starting point in how the internet of things will be regulated.  There are already European and domestic laws which apply to the technology that can be used to achieve better connectivity between devices.  It will be interesting to see what further regulation may result from the Commission’s work in the future.

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