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CES kingpin Gary Shapiro talks privacy, patent trolls and the future of the largest tech show in America

CES 2013 Gary Shapiro Interview

Say what you will: The annual International Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off this week in Las Vegas, remains the biggest trade show in the U.S., and is the volcano from which many of the gadgets we’ll come to love (or hate) over the next year erupt into our consciousness.

To get an inside perspective on the state of the consumer electronics industry, the political battles behind this business, and the role of CES in an increasingly disjointed marketing landscape, we sat down with Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (which puts on CES each year) and author of Ninja Innovation, on the cacophonous floor of the first big event of 2013 CES.

Digital Trends: Who are the ‘Ninja innovators’ to watch in 2013?

Gary Shapiro: That is a very good question. I’m not sure – I’m not going to lie to you. One of the things I’m excited about is a company [HealthSpot] that’s in the main lobby area that has a health ATM. That’s one to watch. I think that could change the world because anyone with Internet access could actually get health care. That’s thinking outside the box. Go through Eureka Park, and there’s 150 companies there, people risking what they have. And they’re trying something new.

You know, whether you succeed in a marketplace or not, trying something is important. And CES is the ultimate marketplace in the sense that 150,000 people, partners, investors, retailers, media like yourself – you determine who’s successful in the marketplace, who’s to watch.

There’s a lot of people looking for the ‘next big thing.’ What’s a small innovation that has made a difference in your life?

GS: Well, I get that question a lot – what’s the next big thing? And you know, when the cell phone was introduced, when the VCR was introduced – even the MP3 player was launched by Apple [with] the iPod … the iPod was like a third-generation MP3, nobody knew it was the next big thing. So I have no use for that question. And I don’t really know how to handle it. But I think that the fact that there’s many great things that make a difference in people’s lives, or are just fun. I mean, last week, I was simply using an app on my smartphone – there was something bright next to the moon – and from that [app], even though I was in another country, I saw that that was Jupiter. I was so excited. That to me makes a difference. It’s the little things that we take for granted, like GPS, that make a difference in people’s lives, like me, who are spatially-challenged.

You know, whether it’s music, or information, or entertainment, or connectivity with others – social media – it’s all making a difference. What’s changing now is that we have sensing devices; they’re smaller, more compact; they do different things. And clever people are using them in different ways. We have new apps being created. So, we’re changing lives in tens of thousands of different ways.

How has the “win” over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) changed the consumer technology industry? And is there anything like SOPA on the horizon?

GS: SOPA/PIPA: I was, from the keynote stage, saying we have to fight this thing. It’s important. There was a press conference here held by a Democrat and a Republican Congressman – they were fighting it; they were alone then. But within three weeks, it had turned around, and it was historic: Five million people had contacted Capitol Hill within 24 hours. And more than 30 people, members of Congress, took their names off the legislation. And now, if you name your legislation [like] “SOPA” or “PIPA,” it’s like naming your kid “Adolf.” It’s just not going to go anywhere. It’s not going to happen.

There is a battle being fought worldwide now over who controls the Internet, in a sense. And the U.S. has the right position, saying, basically, consumers should have access to the Internet. There’s a proposal a lot of countries are pushing which would basically require charges if you’re accessing an Internet site outside your country.

Yes, the so-called “sender-pays” idea.

GS: Right – very dangerous, very dangerous.

I think the other battle we’ll be fighting in 2013 is, there’s a fear about patent trolls. They’ve been devastating to innovation in so many different ways. People or non-productive entities just buying up [patents] – a bunch of lawyers, basically – suing productive companies. It’s just wrong. And that has to change.

And also, we’ve been fighting to get the best and the brightest in the United States. And that’s some unfinished business.

Our major things that we [the CEA] have fought for are [broadband] spectrum, free trade, JOBS Act – we got through Congress in a bipartisan way. So we’ve had some big victories in 2012. There’s always another battle in 2013.

Privacy has become a big, hot-button topic for consumers. How do you see the consumer electronics industry responding to this rising issue?

GS: Well, I think it’s an evolving area. And there’s a lot of focus [in the consumer electronics industry]. We still haven’t figured out the right balance. I mean, everyone wants to be able to have control over what they own. And every time there’s been a new technology, it’s been a big issue. Whether it was the introduction of credit cards themselves, or VCRs – renting movies – whether you had rental privacy there.

But privacy is a cultural concept. Different societies have different [views on privacy]. Personally, I give up a lot of privacy. I give up because I want to have clothes that fit, so I tell people my measurements. I don’t mind recognition software if it gets me through an airport quicker, or if it enhances my security. So it’s a tradeoff. Different people have different views. And it’s an evolving area. But we’ll see a lot there, for sure.

And the important thing is that we don’t choke off innovation. The fact is that, if websites know where you’ve been, maybe they can serve you better. And that’s a good thing. And when consumers are given the choice, usually they’re not turning [tracking mechanisms] off. The exception being the “Do Not Call” list – and rightfully so. I mean, it’s intrusive into your own home. But I think you have to distinguish what jumps into your home, at you, in a sensory way versus involuntarily letting people have your information.

Many people have opinions about the state of the International Consumer Electronics Show. But what do YOU believe is the role of CES between now and 2014?

GS: You know, this is a record-setting event by every definition. It’s phenomenal. You always think you peaked, then you don’t know. Next year, we won’t have any more space. So it’s not going to get bigger, at least not for 2014.

But the role is – I am passionate about technology as a force of good and change. But you still need have to have a face-to-face, interactive experience – the way we’re talking and everyone in this room is talking. You use five senses. You judge people. You judge technology. You judge products. But our technology business is changing throughout the year. I mean, companies are always going to be doing different things. We are just a part of the ecosystem of getting information out there. We’re really good at relationships, and excitement. You know, we have 35,000 people from OUTSIDE the United States. We have 5,000 journalists here. It’s a great way of getting the message out. And there’s a bit of serendipity involved that doesn’t usually happen on the Web, is that you find new things and new products that excite you, that you wouldn’t have seen if you don’t come to an event. And I think that those are all good things.

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