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Words From Charlie - Foreword to the 2014 Conference on Communications Policy Report

Each summer the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convenes approximately 30–35 leaders and experts in the information and communications technology sectors—from business, non-profits, government and academia—to address a cutting-edge topic in U.S. domestic communications regulation. For the summer of 2014 the topic was the Internet of Things, the difference in kind created by the connection of billions of devices, sensors and people to the common communications network of the future.

Often the gathering of these experts leads to significant advances in regulatory thinking, but of an incremental kind. This conference went further. In reviewing the interplay between the vast increase in data created on the Internet of Things (IoT), and the resultant strain on the networks that carry this information, the group came to a realization. Data needs to be thought of as “infrastructure.”

With this realization, a number of recommendations for information and communications policy ensued. While viewpoints varied widely, there was a level of consensus among the group on the following principles:

  • Treat IoT data itself as infrastructure—an essential building block for all kinds of economic, social, and civic activity.
  • Design-in security controls that reduce threats to connected devices and systems, and ensure that these security controls can be kept current.
  • Design-in privacy controls that minimize collection of personally identifiable information and effectuate Fair Information Practice Principles.
  • Promote broad accessibility of data and data analytics, which will require interoperable standards in many parts of the IoT ecosystem.
  • Government should promote adoption and diffusion of technology, including building out IoT capabilities when it invests in infrastructure (known as a “dig once” proposal).
  • IoT systems should ensure accessibility for the disabled and underserved through inclusion by design.
  • The IoT should act as a vehicle for citizen participation and empowerment.
  • Government should promote common standards for smart cities and other applications.
  • Government should use procurement powers and regulatory powers to promote privacy and security.

Data needs to be accessible, and government needs to facilitate data production in certain cases. The role of private investment is as crucial as ever, but government purchasing and deployment of data is also significant, particularly in the area of public goods such as health care, public safety, energy and transportation.

There are indeed many positive uses envisioned by the Internet of Things, and policies to foster those public and private benefits are important. But there are also a number of cautions the group grappled with. These include the values of privacy, inclusion, equity and security. These concerns ran through the deliberations and resulting recommendations, which are reported below.

The Institute wishes to acknowledge and thank the following companies and foundations for supporting the Communications and Society Program and participating in this conference: AT&T, Cablevision, Charter Communications, Cisco Systems, Comcast Corporation, Google Inc., Intel Corporation, Motorola Mobility, Netflix, New Street Research, Telefónica Internacional USA, Inc., Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications.

We thank Ellen P. Goodman, Professor of Law at Rutgers University, for writing the conference report in a way that gives the reader context, conceptual understanding and, thankfully to the participants, a continuity to the dialogue that took place over three days in August 2014. We ask our rapporteurs to give their sense of the proceedings. So any statement made in the report, unless attributed in quotes, is not necessarily the view of each of the participants or their employers. Rather it reflects the arguments or assertions being made at the meeting, leading to the recommendations of the group.

I also want to thank Ian Smalley, Senior Project Manager for the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, who was responsible for managing the meeting and report, Rachel Pohl and Liyuan Zhang for their help in selecting and editing background readings, and Tricia Kelly, our Assistant Director, who supervised the production of the report.

Charles M. Firestone
Executive Director
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
Washington, D.C.
May 2015

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