GigaOm has an interesting, high-level piece that looks at the issue of law, liability and the Internet of Things. The article takes off from a discussion at the Download event in New York City earlier this month, wondering whether adoption of Internet of Things technologies like wearables is starting to run far ahead of society’s ability to manage them.
Specifically: is the pace of technology innovation outstripping the ability of our legal system to reign in excess and protect public safety and civil liberties?
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On the list of ‘what-if’s’ are some familiar questions:
How to assign liability. (“If one of Google’s automated cars crashes, is it the fault of the driver or Google?”)
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What responsibility to users have to take advantage of safety features in connected products? (Does a parent’s failure to password-protect a baby monitor change the manufacturer’s liability when and if it is hacked and used maliciously?)
“Courts in the first part of the 20th century thrashed out many basic principles of product liability, those cases turned on topics like lead paint and snails in ginger beer,” writes author Jeff John Roberts. (No relation.) “Those principles may not apply very well when everyday objects act on their own, and as part of a globally-connected network.”
Roberts notes that cracks are already emerging in the IoT’s facade of “gee whiz!” perfection. Cloud-based services like Apple’s iCloud or Snapchat aren’t treated as defective products, even when they fail to protect the data stored on them and, in the process, cause harm to users.
A similar critique was leveled by the New York Times’s Claire Cain Miller in an article about start-ups Uber and Lyft over the weekend. Sharing economy “platforms” have not been considered responsible for the actions of the users – just the same as blogs or web sites aren’t held responsible for reader comments or offensive posts. But Cain Miller notes that Uber, Lyft and Airbnb are hardly virtual companies: the product they sell (rides, sleeping space) is physical: sold by humans for use by other humans.
In the future, the GigaOm article says, judges may take a dimmer view of smart products: asking whether concepts like “privacy by design” should be standard and requiring online firms to meet the same high product quality standards as automakers or toy companies.