Commerce Department Tackles Mobile Privacy

by , Jun 15, 2012, 5:16 PM
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The Commerce Department will convene a broad array of online companies and advocates next month to attempt to reach a consensus on privacy guidelines for mobile apps.

The meeting, slated for July 12, marks the first in a series of "multi-stakeholder" meetings aimed at reaching a consensus on privacy issues.

The goal of the process is "to develop a code of conduct to provide transparency in how companies providing applications and interactive services for mobile devices handle personal data," the National Telecommunications & Information Administration stated.

A February report by the Obama Administration called for the NTIA to convene a series of multi-stakeholder meetings about privacy. More than two dozen of the groups that submitted comments responding to that report addressed the need to focus on mobile privacy, according to Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of the think tank Future of Privacy Forum.

"Mobile apps are a uniquely good topic for them to start with," Polonetsky says. He adds that the industry currently is in flux, largely because Apple is transitioning away from allowing developers to access iPhones' unique device identifiers: 40-character alphanumeric strings that can be used to track users. It's still not clear what Apple intends to offer developers as a replacement.

The NTIA is convening the meeting at the same time that a separate standards group, the World Wide Web Consortium, is trying to develop consensus guidelines for do-not-track headers. It's not yet clear whether that group will be able to reconcile opposing positions by the members, including browser developers, privacy advocates and ad industry groups.

Microsoft recently stirred controversy within the W3C by announcing that the next version of the Internet Explorer browser would turn a do-not-track header on by default. Until Microsoft's announcement, it was generally assumed that browser developers would not activate do-not-track for users.

The standards group also is struggling to decide how much data ad networks and other companies should be able to collect from users who have turned on a do-not-track header.

But unlike W3C, the NTIA has tapped a professional facilitator -- Mark Chinoy of the Regis Group, according to sources -- to help participants arrive at a consensus. The Federal Communications Commission previously hired Chinoy to coordinate an effort to craft guidelines regarding cramming.

Privacy advocate Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says that consumer groups intend to participate and push for privacy protections. He adds that he expects that the NTIA meetings will at least shed light on industry practices. The process "opens a window into how information is collected in the 21st Century," Chester says. "Consumer groups will push to make these little-known marketing practices more visible."

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