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What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

Understanding the issues and challenges of a more connected world

On October 15, 2015, the Internet Society published a 50-page white paper that provided an overview of the IoT and explored related issues and challenges.

The Executive Summary is included below to provide a preview of the full document.

Revision History:

  • October 5, 2015 – Initial publication.
  • October 22, 2015 – PDF file updated with a higher quality cover image and a title page.
  • January 6, 2016 – PDF file updated with new graphic design. The filename changed to include “-en” for English.
  • April 18, 2016 – Russian translation published.
  • August 17, 2016 – Spanish translation published.

IOT Definition: The term Internet of Things generally refers to scenarios where network connectivity and computing capability extends to objects, sensors, and everyday items not normally considered computers; thus, allowing these devices to generate, exchange and consume data with minimal human intervention. There is, however, no single universal definition.

Enabling Technologies: The concept of combining computers, sensors, and networks to monitor and control devices has existed for decades. However, the recent confluence of several technology market trendsUbiquitous Connectivity, Widespread Adoption of IP-based Networking, Computing Economics, Miniaturization, Advances in Data Analytics, and the Rise of Cloud Computing is bringing the Internet of Things closer to widespread reality.

Connectivity Models: IoT implementations use different technical communications models, each with its own characteristics. Four common communications models described by the Internet Architecture Board include Device-to-Device, Device-to-Cloud, Device-to-Gateway, and Back-End Data-Sharing. These models highlight the ways that IoT devices can connect and provide value to the user.

Transformational Potential: Suppose the projections and trends towards IoT become a reality. In that case, it may force a shift in thinking about the implications and issues in a world where the most common interaction with the Internet comes from passive engagement with connected objects rather than active engagement with content.

Interoperability / Standards
  • A fragmented environment of proprietary IoT technical implementations will inhibit value for users and industry.
  • Full interoperability across products and services is not always feasible or necessary.
  • Poorly designed and configured IoT devices may have negative consequences for the networking resources they connect to and the broader Internet.
  • Appropriate standards, reference models, and best practices will also help curb the proliferation of devices that may act in disrupted ways to the Internet.
  • The use of generic, open, and widely available standards as technical building blocks for IoT devices and services will support greater user benefits, innovation, and economic opportunity.
Legal, regulatory, and rights

The use of IoT devices raises many new regulatory and legal questions as well as amplifies existing legal issues around the Internet. The questions are wide in scope, and the rapid rate of change in IoT technology frequently outpaces the ability of the associated policy, legal, and regulatory structures to adapt.

One set of issues surrounds cross border data flows, which occur when IoT devices collect data about people in one jurisdiction and transmit it to another jurisdiction with different data protection laws for processing. Further, data collected by IoT devices is sometimes susceptible to misuse, potentially causing discriminatory outcomes for some users.

While the legal and regulatory challenges are broad and complex in scope, adopting the guiding Internet Society principlespromote a user’s ability to connect, speak, innovate, share, choose, and trust are core considerations for evolving IoT laws and regulations that enable user rights.

Emerging economic and development issues

The Internet of Things holds significant promise for delivering social and economic benefits to emerging and developing economies – this includes areas such as sustainable agriculture, water quality and use, healthcare, industrialization, and environmental management, etc. As such, IoT holds promise as a tool that will achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The broad scope of IoT challenges will not be unique to industrialized countries, developing regions will also need to respond to realize the potential benefits of IoT. The Internet of Things is happening now. It promises to offer a revolutionary, fully connected “smart” world as the relationships between objects, their environment, and people become more tightly intertwined. However, the issues and challenges associated with IoT need to be considered and addressed in order for the potential benefits for individuals, society, and the economy to be realized.

Ultimately, solutions for maximizing the benefits of the Internet of Things, while minimizing the risks, will not be found by engaging in a polarized debate that pits the promises of IoT against its possible perils. Rather, it will take informed engagement, dialogue, and collaboration across a range of stakeholders to plot the most effective ways forward.

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