Capitol Hill Focuses on Mobile Privacy With Spate of Actions

Regulatory and Legislative Groups Work to Create Standards Around Data Gathering

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The "fiscal cliff" may be dominating the news from Capitol Hill, but marketers should heed what's happening under the radar as regulators and lawmakers home in on mobile privacy.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission scolded mobile-app makers for endangering kids' privacy, and a Senate committee advanced a bill requiring companies to notify consumers when mobile apps collect location data. Today, the Commerce Department will convene a group of mobile-industry stakeholders to develop a standard for mobile-app privacy notifications. And the FTC is close to updating the 14-year-old law protecting children's online privacy to include mobile.

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.

It may seem like a hodgepodge of disparate projects, but they're all working toward giving consumers more control over collection of their mobile data.

The FTC wants to bring the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) into the 21st century, which means it must address mobile. The commission wants to label location data and mobile-device IDs as personal information, which would require mobile marketers to notify consumers when they're collecting and using such data. It's expected to officially propose its COPPA changes by the end of the year.

On Monday afternoon, industry trade-association representatives, academics, tech experts, corporate counsels and consumer groups will attend a four-hour meeting held by the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. They'll try to create a standard for mobile-app privacy notifications. The project is part of a larger Obama administration privacy effort.

"The level of activity around mobile privacy makes it clear that it is important to both businesses and consumers," said John Morris, head of NTIA's Office of Policy Analysis and Development.

Mobile privacy is also a focus of federal bills. While most of them have collected dust in the past year, the Judiciary Committee last Thursday passed a lesser-known location-privacy bill sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the first of the 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.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, voted for the bill, but expressed misgivings and alluded in his comments to a letter opposing the bill from the Interactive Advertising Bureau. "This is an incredibly complex industry that 's ever-evolving," he said. "The last thing that we want to do is race something through that has a negative impact and unintended consequences on an industry."

With hundreds of thousands of mobile apps and developers, can government really police mobile privacy? The FTC and others are looking to California -- home to many mobile platforms and developers -- for guidance. In February, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced an agreement with mobile-app platform companies: Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research in Motion. Facebook joined in June.

The firms agreed to require developers to offer consumers more information about data collection. The companies are already required under state law to present an app privacy policy before download. Earlier this month, the state took legal action against Delta Airlines for not prominently posting a mobile-app privacy policy.

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