EU asks for help on regulating the Internet of things

Current legislation not up to the job says legal expert

The European Commission is calling for opinions on how to regulate wirelessly connected devices, as legal experts say the current Data Protection Directive is not up to the job.

Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes last week launched a public consultation on the so-called "Internet of things" to try to find the right balance between privacy and convenience.

"The current directive is certainly not designed with this technology in mind," said Kathryn Wynn, senior associate at legal firm Pinsent Masons, adding that it is likely that a lot of the more intrusive communications (such as alerts to devices or device-tracking) would not be considered to be "personal data" under the existing legislation.

Household devices, most obviously smartphones and laptops, are already connected wirelessly but the number of devices that can connect to the Internet is set to grow dramatically in coming years. The Commission estimates that currently the average person has two devices connected to the Internet, but expects this to rise to seven by 2015.

This creates a potential minefield for regulators with regard to interoperability and privacy issues. These devices will collect, share and store data. The European Commission wants to ensure an adequate level of control over what can be done with that data. Kroes said she was chiefly concerned with "preserving security, privacy and the respect of ethical values."

The new draft Data Protection Regulation, which was published in January, does seek to address some issues relating to newer technology such as location data. But it will not come into force for at least another two years, points out Wynn. "It is likely that the technology will have moved on leaps and bounds by that stage. This is a classic example of the issue that the E.U. Commission is facing; the legislation simply cannot keep up with the pace of technology," she said.

The other big question raised by the trend toward connected devices is how to manage interoperability, governance and standards. The E.C. surveycalls for all interested parties to submit their ideas and respond to questions by July 12. The results of the consultation will feed into the Commission's recommendation on the Internet of things, which will be presented by summer 2013.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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