Mobile-Privacy Bill Edges Closer to Senate Vote

Would Require Apps to Obtain Consent for Data Collection

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Senator Al Franken discusses his Location Privacy Protection Act this afternoon during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
Senator Al Franken discusses his Location Privacy Protection Act this afternoon during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.

During a week when mobile-app privacy has garnered increased attention, a lesser-known mobile-privacy bill sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon, edging it closer to the Senate floor for a vote. The Location Privacy Protection Act is the first of a slew of privacy bills introduced in the past couple years to make it out of the committee stage.

Changes to the bill in its current form are expected, but its primary goal is to require that companies obtain user consent before collecting or sharing mobile location data.

Earlier this week, the FTC published its second report on kids' mobile-app privacy, finding that almost 60% of the 400 apps studied in a summer test sent device identification data to app developers or third parties, such as ad networks and analytics firms. Fourteen of the ID-sharing apps passed along geographic location data and/or a phone number.

Noting concerns that GPS tracking is used in mobile apps to help stalkers locate their prey, Mr. Franken said, "It is our job to fix these problems. My bill sets up a general rule for all companies."

Of course, the bill has implications for developers and providers of consumer mobile apps, many of which are free and ad-supported. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, voted for the bill, but expressed concerns about the impact it would have on businesses as currently written. If consumers are confronted with frequent consent notices, they "would revolt if this is the case," he said during the markup meeting on the bill.

New requirements for updating apps to enable notification and consent, argued Mr. Grassley, could "do serious damage to the tech sector." He also suggested that mobile-app makers might find it difficult to support their businesses through advertising and would move to fee-based models, which would be "an unfortunate side effect" for consumers, he said.

In his remarks, Mr. Grassley read directly from a letter from the Interactive Advertising Bureau opposing the bill.

"The mobile marketplace is a unique, yet highly complex technical ecosystem with multiple entities often behind a single service. One application may have 10 or more different entities functioning behind the scenes to enable service, ad delivery, monetization, or analytics to help improve the user experience," stated the letter, submitted by Mr. Grassley to the committee for the record. "In a real-time automated delivery market, there is no technologically feasible, or practical means for providing notice of each specific entity, as the entity changes in a moment's notice."

Sen. Schumer, whose state's Silicon Alley tech sector is flourishing, voted for the bill, but suggested, "I think the bill still needs a lot of work ... particularly to assuage tech innovators."

Mr. Franken stressed, "I'm all for innovation," and noted in the year and a half the bill has been in development, his staff has "been working with the industry on this."

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