• United States

Elizabeth Warren’s right-to-repair plan fails to consider data from IoT equipment

Mar 28, 20193 mins
Internet of Things

Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren suggests national legislation focused on farm equipment. But that’s only a first step. The data collected by that equipment must also be considered.

Artificial Intelligence robotic in wheat field
Credit: Thinkstock

There’s a surprising battle being fought on America’s farms, between farmers and the companies that sell them tractors, combines, and other farm equipment. Surprisingly, the outcome of that war could have far-reaching implications for the internet of things (IoT) — and now Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has weighed in with a proposal that could shift the balance of power in this largely under-the-radar struggle.

Right to repair farm equipment

Here’s the story: As part of a new plan to support family farms, Warren came out in support of a national right-to-repair law for farm equipment. That might not sound like a big deal, but it raises the stakes in a long-simmering fight between farmers and equipment makers over who really controls access to the equipment — and to the increasingly critical data gathered by the IoT capabilities built into it.

Warren’s proposal reportedly calls for making all diagnostics tools and manuals freely available to the equipment owners, as well as independent repair shops — not just vendors and their authorized agents — and focuses solely on farm equipment.

That’s a great start, and kudos to Warren for being by far the most prominent politician to weigh in on the issue.

Part of a much bigger IoT data issue

But Warren’s proposal merely scratches the surface of the much larger issue of who actually controls the equipment and devices that consumers and businesses buy. Even more important, it doesn’t address the critical data gathered by IoT sensors in everything ranging from smartphones, wearables, and smart-home devices to private and commercial vehicles and aircraft to industrial equipment.

And as many farmers can tell you, this isn’t some academic argument. That data has real value — not to mention privacy implications. For farmers, it’s GPS-equipped smart sensors tracking everything — from temperature to moisture to soil acidity — that can determine the most efficient times to plant and harvest crops. For consumers, it might be data that affects their home or auto insurance rates, or even divorce cases. For manufacturers, it might cover everything from which equipment needs maintenance to potential issues with raw materials or finished products.

The solution is simple: IoT users need consistent regulations that ensure free access to what is really their own data, and give them the option to share that data with the equipment vendors — if they so choose and on their own terms.

At the very least, users need clear statements of the rules, so they know exactly what they’re getting — and not getting — when they buy IoT-enhanced devices and equipment. And if they’re being honest, most equipment vendors would likely admit that clear rules would benefit them as well by creating a level playing field, reducing potential liabilities and helping to avoid making customers unhappy.

Sen. Warren made headlines earlier this month by proposing to “break up” tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. If she really wants to help technology buyers, prioritizing the right-to-repair and the associated right to own your own data seems like a more effective approach.


Fredric Paul is Editor in Chief for New Relic, Inc., and has held senior editorial positions at ReadWrite, InformationWeek, CNET, PCWorld and other publications. His opinions are his own.