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Neelie Kroes

European Commissioner for Digital agenda

Bringing European values to the Internet of Things

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

2nd Annual Internet of Things Conference

Brussels, 1st June 2010

Ladies and gentlemen,

What is the Internet of Things? This is one of many questions I faced when I took on this role. As I have found with many issues relating to the digital world – there is not always a clear-cut answer.

Let me share how I see it. In simple terms it is obviously about ubiquitous chips, wireless networks, readers and sensors, connecting (potentially all) objects to the Internet. These connections allow objects, machines and people to gather, exchange, store and process information.

But for me this description does not capture what we are addressing here today. To me, a relative outsider to such jargon, the Internet of Things is about values and fundamental democratic choices on the future of our society. Being aware that an Internet of Things is emerging is about ensuring our European values are guarded, whilst also ensuring progress and competitiveness.

Beyond the technical and physical reality, the Internet of Things is an aspiration. It is an ecosystem of applications which will be key to a truly IT-enabled world. These applications will help us navigate, and open our eyes to new possibilities in our work and leisure. They will also give us the information we need to use our natural and human resources more efficiently and to increase productivity so that European life is better and more sustainable

To deliver these benefits requires unimaginable deployments of technology - and there still is quite a way to go. In some ways this is good news as it gives us time to digest what Internet of Things will mean to our societies and economies. It is critically important to make sure that from its infancy the Internet of Things is grounded in a value system and a policy framework that will ensure it delivers the expected social and economic benefits. For this we need democratic debate and broad societal consensus.

Digital Agenda for Europe

This brings me to the new Digital Agenda for Europe that I proposed last month. Unlike past strategies, this is not simply about telecoms, or IT. It is a comprehensive strategy to help Europe plan for long-term digital success. Like the Internet of Things, this wider Digital Agenda will need broad support to achieve its potential.

The Internet of Things is the platform for delivering many of the Agenda's 100 key actions. Indeed it is clear that five of the Agenda's seven action areas directly affect the development of the Internet of Things, namely:

  • Interoperability

  • Increasing Trust and Security

  • Increasing R&D

  • Rolling-out fast Internet access and

  • Spreading societal benefits of ICTs.

Ways the Internet of Things could develop

Therefore we need to see the Internet of Things as part of a bigger picture. Its sheer scale should force us to think through the consequences. With the development of the Internet of Things alongside current networks we are talking about the possibility that in the future every person and every thing could be connected to each other wirelessly, from virtually any position on earth. That is not a venture that should be undertaken lightly.

If citizens experience the Internet of Things as a system that watches them and harasses them, then it will quickly be seen in negative terms and will not achieve its potential.

Instead of this we need a wide and informed debate about what the Internet of Things can really do to improve daily lives and business. People need to be shown what the choices are with the development of the Internet of Things.

Our citizens may not always want to use the technology in all the ways that is possible. They will want to retain control over their lives and surroundings. This is why we should place a premium on a thorough and transparent debate. People should not feel that it sneaked up on them, forcing them to live with new and unexpected realities.

The sorts of questions we need to be asking are:

  • What precautions do you want in place to make sure your medical information can be accessed electronically, but not by the wrong people?

  • Would you accept your mobile phone being located and traced in exchange for, say, a weather map?

  • Can your car be tagged to improve mobility and traffic safety?

These are not really technical questions. They are values questions. And we will need to use the answers to inform how the Internet of Things develops. We must ensure we have ways to integrate our values into the technical possibilities.

This is a challenge not just for Europe but for the whole world. And it is needless to say that some countries are less motivated by values of openness, transparency and democracy than the Member States of the EU.

If Europe takes a lead on this, if we show the value of debating these issues openly, then it is more likely that around the world the Internet of Things will be used to do good things.

I want to see many more advances like we have seen in Sweden – there 850,000 Distance Electrical Meter Readers have been installed and now save everyone's money and energy. There is no more trekking in the winter cold to read meters, there is no more guessing at how much energy one is using. It's all efficiently clear at a glance.

Likewise there is great potential is systems like eCall – the accident notification system that automatically sends emergency services to cars that have been in an accident. This is a perfect example of how the Internet of Things can not only improve lives, but actually save them.

We should continue to invest in the research and development that will give us the possibility of many more such applications. As we do so, we must place the citizen at the centre - ensuring that the human perspective is safeguarded in the Internet of Things.

In this context I would also like to mention the recently launched Public Private Partnership for a Future Internet. This initiative will work to develop a common platform for the kind of services that I have just mentioned, one that can be used by the public sector to make sure that the Internet of Things is available on the widest possible basis for public benefit. This platform can be compared to the 'Application stores' now being developed for mobile usage and the cloud computing platforms used to develop business applications.

We anticipate that such a platform could integrate sensor networks with web-based services as the next Internet revolution. This would lead to thousands of services delivered via an enhanced broadband network and supported by a shared European framework. This could be described as an "Open Service Sphere".

To give a particular example, health providers could use it to predict disease, reduce hospital visits and make better use of clinical data. In urban mobility, we would be delivering systems that guide city travellers towards the best route and the best means of transport. The best thing is that we – as governments - do not have to develop them, but anyone can; at least anyone with a good idea and the ability to mash data into services that people want.

In summary, I want to make sure that as we embrace new technologies and let them into our world, we have had the right debates and establish the appropriate parameters. I also want to be personally humble about predicting the future and the role the Internet of Things could play in our lives. We should certainly do everything in our power to explain its potential, but we really must first secure broad support if we want to deliver a long-term impact.

Pragmatic steps forward

Having said that let me go on presenting some pragmatic ways to move forward:

  • Let us work on solidifying a level regulatory playing field and predictable policy environment. This is conducive to investments in R&D and innovation. These are business opportunities that Europe cannot afford to ignore in its recovery efforts.

  • Clearly we must also work globally with other governments. I am thinking both in terms of making the Internet of Things resilient and in terms of promoting Europe's attitude to openness and transparency. It makes sense that securing billions of devices to the Internet requires global co-ordination.

  • We must accept that there will need to be vigorous debates about the ethical issues. Privacy, control, governance – you will not be able to escape these issues in coming years. And it will likely be a complicated debate given the many stakeholders from suppliers to standards bodies to end users. I think it will be essential for the Commission to help convene this wide stakeholder community and facilitate the debate.

If I may now cite an example now of how we will work.

I think will be important for the Commission to be flexible and open to avoid foreclosure on unknown future developments. This is the only way to allow innovations to spring up. And in that respect we will mirror the Commission's approach on RFID. Answering to a heated debated sparked by privacy concerns, the Commission facilitated a dialogue with all stakeholders that allowed for a rational analysis of real and perceived threats. This dialogue led to an agreement on basic principles that are now formally enshrined in the Recommendation on RFID and privacy.

In these respects, let me say that I am quite happy about how the RFID Recommendation is unfolding. Industry is fulfilling ahead of time the role assigned to them and no privacy problems having been reported to me. But I want to take the occasion to urge all stakeholders that play a role in its implementation to not lose the momentum: the so-called RFID signs or logos need to be developed, the retail provisions need to be put in place and, altogether, all the measures need to be implemented. I am confident that this soft-approach is working but I remind everyone that stronger approaches are always a possibility.

My intention is therefore to take up the big challenges of the Internet of Things, as my predecessor did with RFID.

Expert Group

As you know, the Commission adopted last year a Communication that sets out 14 actions to allow a development of the Internet of Things in a beneficial manner to European citizens and industry. These actions are progressing well and I wish to announce today my plan to set up an expert group, which will act as a multi-stakeholder forum, to advise the Commission on how to address the really hard actions like:

  • governance mechanisms

  • data ownership

  • privacy

  • a "right to the silence of the chips"

  • standards

  • international scope

The group should therefore be composed of people from a diversity of backgrounds – scientific, technical, industrial, legal, civil society, etc. They will meet on a quarterly basis to find, I hope, consensual answers to the many complex issues which I have raised in my speech today. Their work should complement that currently being finalised by the European Parliament on these issues, and will certainly help stakeholders to develop a sense of ownership over the challenges we face. The bottom line is that the European Commission can be an important prompt, we can set a values framework – but we need you as stakeholders to come up with answers too.

To reflect the fact that we want an Internet of Things that is broadly understood and supported by Europeans, the work of the group should be inclusive and output driven. This is the only way to sensibly enter these uncharted waters.


I understand that I am posing as many questions as answers today. But that is because it is not possible for one person or one institution to lay down a single way to approach these issues. As Antonio Machado, one of Spain's most famous authors has said: "we have no road; we make the road by walking".

This is daunting, but exciting. I would be pleased to discuss with you again in 2011 how this journey is progressing.

In the meantime, I urge you to jump into action – that is the only way we can expect to deliver concrete outcomes within the next two years. And it is well-thought out actions that will guide us to a strong future development of the Internet of Things.

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