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App Makers Urged to Do More to Protect User Privacy App Makers Urged to Do More to Protect User Privacy

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App Makers Urged to Do More to Protect User Privacy


Louis Cortes; Jacquise Dilligard use Palm's smartphone(Alex Wong Getty Images News)

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee scolded both government and industry officials on Thursday for doing too little to protect the privacy of children who use applications on smartphones and other mobile devices.

Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and others voiced concern that some mobile app makers are not complying with the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. The law bars online sites from collecting personal data from those under 13 without parental consent.


The issue of mobile phone privacy has gained new attention in recent weeks after reports revealed some mobile phones collect information about the locations of their users. While the hearing of the Commerce Consumer Protection Subcommittee centered on mobile phone privacy more broadly, Rockefeller focused on children and smartphones.

He questioned whether the Federal Trade Commission is doing enough to ensure COPPA applies to new mobile apps. Rockefeller noted that the FTC launched an effort last year to examine whether the law should be updated to provide for children who use mobile phones, gaming devices, and other technologies to go online, but said the agency was moving slowly.

Rockefeller questioned Facebook's commitment to enforcing its policy barring children under 13 from opening accounts. He noted that the Facebook app available for mobile phones is rated appropriate for children 4 and older, and a recent Consumer Reports study found that 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13.


Facebook’s Bret Taylor said the social networking site shuts down accounts belonging to underage users when informed about them.

Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, whose group represents many mobile app makers, acknowledged that his members need to do a better job of informing consumers about their privacy options.

But he cautioned against new laws that could stifle the growth and innovation in the apps market. Reed argued that current laws have proven adequate to allow the FTC to pursue bad actors.

He and FTC Consumer Protection Bureau Director David Vladeck pointed to the FTC’s recent $3 million fine against the social gaming service Playdom for violating COPPA. Vladeck said the agency is currently investigating some mobile apps makers for violations of FTC rules.


Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and some GOP members echoed Reed’s concern that legislation could stifle the ad-supported free content model of the Internet and hinder the growth of emerging smartphone technologies.

But after being questioned by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Vladeck acknowledged that the agency’s authority is limited if an app provider does not provide a privacy policy and collects and shares information without consumer consent. Kerry said this highlights the need for Congress to pass legislation, such as the measure he introduced last month with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would require all companies to adhere to baseline privacy standards.

“I don’t think we can leave it to firms to decide on an ad hoc basis what that level of protection should be,” said Kerry, chairman of the Commerce Communications Subcommittee.

This article appears in the May 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.

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