Along with the new tech at CES, the wrap comes off new Republican regulators

17 January 2018 4:16pm
Echo Dot

12 January 2018. By Mike Swift.

David Isbitski, the “chief evangelist” for Amazon’s voice-powered Alexa assistant, guided a standing-room-only crowd of more than 600 people through the doorway into the world of “ambient computing” at the world’s largest consumer electronics show in Las Vegas this week.

Ambient computing essentially means that a world of digital services delivered through the Internet will increasingly be in the air all around us, not just inside the computer on our desks or the smartphone in our pockets.

“Voice represents the next major disruption in computing,” Isbitski said. “We’re living in that era now where we can talk to technology like other human beings.”

Voice, and the tremendous flood of data that will be generated as voice-powered assistants become the medium to network Internet-connected devices into “smart homes” and “smart cities,” is also a medium that regulators will also have to master.

That was one clear take-away as CES 2018* wrapped up Friday, as was the unveiling of new technology such as the first US flight of the Volocopter — an autonomous flying drone that can carry a single human passenger. The Volocopter, a battery-powered aircraft running low-power Intel chips, was promoted by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich as a kind of Uber-for-the-skies transportation solution for the world’s cities.

Besides new technology, CES 2018 was also a kind of a coming-out party for a new generation of Republican regulators, such as Brendan Carr of the US Federal Communications Commission and David Redl of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who met the tech industry for the first time after being confirmed by Congress in recent months.

Two clear themes from NTIA's Redl were that cybersecurity will be a priority for the Trump administration and that the administration is willing to assert US digital interests globally — even involving a potential fight over the EU’s landmark privacy and data security law, the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.

CES was also a kind of curtain call for one of the most prominent of US privacy and antitrust regulators, Maureen Ohlhausen, the acting chair of the US Federal Trade Commission.

Notably, Ohlhausen discussed the FTC’s first-ever privacy enforcement case earlier this week against a maker of Internet-connected toys. In a complaint the FTC filled Monday in the Eastern District of Illinois, the regulator alleged VTech Electronics broke the law by using those toys to collect “photographs and audio files containing a child’s image or voice” without parental permission.

The mob snapping photos with their smartphones and tablets of Isbitksi’s presentation on Alexa’s rapidly expanding number of  voice-enabled “skills” was testament that VTech is highly unlikely to be the last time the FTC brings a privacy case around the collection of a person’s voice.

In with the new

If CES stalwarts complained about the lack of transformational new technology in this year’s show, there were plenty of new Republican US officials to meet. Donald Trump had not yet been inaugurated at the time of last year’s CES. The more than 100 regulators and politicians who spoke at this year’s show had a conservative bent.

US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, spoke about the promise of autonomous cars to save lives and reduce traffic in “smart cities.”

Redl, who was confirmed in November to head the NTIA, the chief telecom adviser for the White House, vowed that the US will not be an Internet isolationist on privacy and security. Quite the opposite.

In a muscular speech, Redl took a swipe at the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technologies, saying it needed the leadership of an American to become a 21st Century institution. And he promised to be “a strong advocate for US interests” within the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Icann, a California-based nonprofit, oversees the way websites are registered across the world.

“We need to ensure transparency and accountability in Icann's work,” Redl said, vowing to protect a “vital interest” for the US in access to the “WhoIs” database that may run afoul of Europe’s forthcoming privacy and data security law, the General Data Protection Regulation. WhoIs is essentially an address book that details who controls the world’s websites.

Redl asked technologists, investors and other tech stakeholders at CES to support a former NTIA official, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, to lead the one of three units within the ITU.

“The ITU needs to be modernized and become a 21st century institution if we're going to achieve our [wireless] spectrum and satellite goals,” Redl said. “A good first step would be for an American, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, to win election as Director of the ITU Telecommunications Development Bureau.”

Out with the old

Ohlhausen’s future at the FTC is uncertain, given that Trump has nominated Joseph Simons to be the FTC’s next chair. Many of the questions she faced in an interview with Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, were about her legacy at the commission.

Like other Republican regulators such as Redl, she stressed her active commitment to cybersecurity issues, with clearly proscribed limits for privacy and antitrust enforcement.

While one of the biggest global tech policy debates of 2017 was whether online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have become so dominant that they are squelching innovation, Ohlhausen suggested US antitrust regulators in a Republican administration are unlikely to see that as a priority.

“Antitrust is a very fact-specific inquiry,” Ohlhausen said, answering a question about the Internet giants. “You can’t say ‘big is bad and small is good’ across the board. You have to look at a company — why is it big?”

If a company’s size benefits consumers with lower prices and better products, Ohlhausen said, there probably isn’t a significant antitrust problem.

And even as regulators in Europe grow more worried about the potential anticompetitive effects of the giant troves of personal data being amassed, Ohlhausen still doesn’t have antitrust worries there.

“I think a lot of these concerns we’re seeing about companies being able to aggregate big pots of data are really consumer protection concerns,” she said.

*CES 2018. Las Vegas, Nevada. Jan. 9-12, 2018.

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