Ad Trade Groups Lament California Mobile-Privacy Push

State's Attorney General Offers Recommendations for Mobile App Makers, Platforms, Ad Networks

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The California Attorney General is pushing mobile marketers to apply voluntary app privacy guidelines, and advertising industry groups don't like it. The "Privacy on the Go" document published by California Attorney General Kamala Harris is a set of recommendations for mobile app makers, platforms and ad networks.

The new mobile privacy guidelines from California, developed under the state's Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit, are not legally binding. However, industry trade groups are expected to send a letter today to the AG's office complaining that the guidelines "extend far beyond existing legal requirements under California law" and stating that "there has been no assessment of their likely impact on the California economy."

The privacy recommendations come on the heels of an agreement between California and the largest mobile app platforms, as well as a suit against Delta Airlines for failing to notify users of its Fly Delta app that the app was collecting personally identifiable information.

The ad groups that have signed the letter, which has been provided to Advertising Age, are the American Association of Advertising Agencies, American Advertising Federation, Association of National Advertisers, Direct Marketing Association, Interactive Advertising Bureau, National Business Coalition on E-Commerce and Privacy and the Association of Magazine Media. Despite their concerns, the California AG's office said industry stakeholders were consulted in the development of the guidelines, though it would not provide company names.

The Privacy on the Go recommendations suggest that mobile app makers provide "special notices" to alert users about data practices. "For example, operating systems that use location data [should] deliver a notice just before collecting the data and give users an opportunity to allow or prevent the practice," states the document.

"Consumers aren't clamoring for some special notice," argued Stu Ingis, government affairs and privacy counsel to the DMA. "It's amazing that with all the innovation that's occurring, a small section of people continue to look for forums that in reality would produce a result that would be bad for the consumer experience," he added.

"Our recommendations, which in many places offer greater protection than afforded by existing law, are intended to encourage all players in the mobile marketplace to consider privacy implications at the outset of the design process," state the guidelines.

Collection of location-based data is on the radar of federal legislators. In December, a location-privacy bill sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., became the first of recent privacy bills to pass the committee stage, moving it closer to a vote on the Senate floor. Its primary goal is to require companies to obtain consent before collecting or sharing a user's mobile-location data.

As far as the industry is concerned, the California recommendations place the onus on the brands and media firms that own the bulk of the mobile apps available, rather than the tech firms building them.

The guidelines also suggest that mobile ad networks should "Move away from the use of interchangeable device-specific identifiers and transition to app-specific or temporary device identifiers." The idea here is to prevent tracking of all usage of a single device, which could create a robust profile of a person's daily travels and digital-content consumption.

The document also lays out a long list of mobile data that the Attorney General considers to be personally identifiable information. In addition to unique device IDs, geo-location data and financial and health information, the list includes photos, videos, web browsing history and apps downloaded or used. Historically, some of these data categories are not considered to be personally identifiable information. For instance, web browsing history is commonly used in basic behavioral targeting online.

"We are concerned that these recommendations, if implemented, will chill innovation in the marketplace, cost jobs, harm California's economy, and deprive consumers of the benefits of mobile applications, products, and services," states the industry's complaint to be sent to the AG's office.

Last year Ms. Harris announced agreements with mobile-app platform companies Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research in Motion. The firms agreed to require developers to offer consumers more information about data collection. The companies are required under state law to present an app privacy policy before they are download.