On December 4, the Center for Data Innovation hosted a conversation about the future of the Internet of Things and the role for policymaking in either stifling innovation or crippling it. The event coincided with the release of a report on their 10 policy principles for unlocking the Internet of Things.

Speaking at the event, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) remarked that the “transformative innovation” in the Internet of Things is different from the explosive growth of the mobile computing ecosystem because it “facilitates the collection, storage, and exchange of digital information to people and machines in an even more interconnected manner, sometimes automatically.” If we are to maximize our benefits from the Internet of Things, “policymakers can’t bury their heads in the sand and pretend this technological revolution isn’t happening, only to wake up years down the road and try to micromanage a fast-changing, dynamic industry.” Policymakers need to react “with all the facts” at hand to avoid clumsily stifling innovation. Weighing the costs and benefits of regulation, particularly regarding consumer privacy and data security, will be key to achieving the benefits of advanced connectivity for consumers and businesses.

Rep. Suzan Del Bene (D-WA-01) concurred that the technology is “evolving at an incredible speed,” and that public policy can’t be written based on existing technology, or it will also be left behind.

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) called the technology “astounding.” The current generation “are ready to be connected and they’re actually thinking of new ways to connect,” she said, referencing things like smart homes, so policymakers “need to make sure our regulatory environment is conducive to fostering innovation” instead of living in “the Dark Ages.” The key will be to “resist knee-jerk regulatory tendencies,” Ayotte said, because “there is no one-size fits all in this dynamic environment.”

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) thinks that “the public is not yet aware about what is happening” with the Internet of Things, so policymakers will have to lead on policy instead of following public opinion. Government regulation of technology, he said, “should have a light hand, but we still need to have a firm hand,” which he compared to holding a tube of toothpaste: a tight enough grip to not drop it, but not so tight that you squeeze out all the toothpaste.

There are significant risks in data privacy and security, he said, and in the continued U.S. model of disparate privacy regulation. While he didn’t explicitly advocate it, he discussed the benefits of a comprehensive overarching U.S. privacy law, like that proposed in the past by then-Senator John Kerry, Rep. Bobby Rush, and the Obama White House. Still, to grapple with the Internet of Things, he recommended “a balanced approach” to regulation, based on principles “and not overly rigid.” Schatz called for “a flexible regulatory regime on the statutory side” that allows the regulators flexibility.

“I think government has a role” to deal with the “significant challenges” to privacy and security, he said. Schatz’s hope for the Senate’s approach to policymaking for the Internet of Things was best summed up by a Hawaiian saying: “Go slow to go fast.”

Schatz, Ayotte and Fischer recently called for a hearing to focus on the Internet of Things in the Senate Commerce Committee, on which they all sit. We expect one to be convened in 2015.