Watchdog Blasts NTIA's Mobile Privacy Initiative

by , Aug 29, 2013, 12:23 AM
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Advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy is calling on the Obama administration to back up its call for a privacy “bill of rights” with proposed legislation.

"Online marketers and others want to collect all the data they can about us -- that's been the basis for e-commerce since the Web became commercial,” the nonprofit says in a new 34-page report. “Legislation and regulation should reasonably limit how and what information can be collected.”

The privacy group specifically takes aim at the Commerce Department's recent attempt to forge voluntary privacy standards for mobile app developers, saying that the process was “flawed from the outset.”

"While the Administration had an opportunity to advance the privacy and consumer protection interests of the American public, it failed to engage in the serious scrutiny and leadership these issues require,” the CDD says. “Missing almost entirely from the more than yearlong discussion was the impact that current digital marketing, mobile, and app-related business models have on the capability of a consumer to make meaningful privacy choices.”

Starting last July, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications & Information Administration convened a series of meetings between online companies and advocates, in an attempt to reach a consensus on privacy guidelines for mobile apps. The agency did so in response to the Obama Administration's call to bring all “stakeholders” to the table in order to develop voluntary codes of conduct.

The mobile app privacy meetings resulted in a group of tech companies promising to test "short form" notices, which aim to notify consumers about data collection by apps. The idea is that developers will describe the information collected by apps in a single word, or short phrase -- like “biometrics,” “health information,” “location,” and “browser history” -- followed by brief definitions.

The plan is controversial for several reasons, including that some research suggests consumers won't understand the notices.

The Center for Digital Democracy says in its report that the NTIA lacked sufficient information about the mobile app market to lead the meetings. The group says in its report that the agency “didn't understand that mobile apps are merely one part of an integrated set of real-time consumer data collection and targeting services, involving an array of platforms, applications, and techniques that are leveraged to exploit the social and geo-locational behaviors of users.”

The nonprofit says that any future series of meetings should be led by the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that the FTC “is much better equipped to serve as a fair and well-informed facilitator of what could be useful and revealing conversations between industry and consumer groups.”

The watchdog organization also calls for new laws. “The White House should not try to replace much-needed public policy with an inadequate, lobbyist-dependent series of convenings. It should release its long-overdue proposed privacy legislation,” the group says.

The report will be released Thursday -- the same day that the NTIA will hold a session addressing how to improve its process for the next series of privacy meetings.

The Consumer Federation of America has already offered a series of suggestions in that regard, including that the NTIA tap an academic to serve as facilitator and create an initial draft of a voluntary code of conduct.

On Wednesday, the Direct Marketing Association objected to that idea. The group says that any code of conduct should be drafted by people in the industry, not academics. “Industry is in the best position to ensure that a code is technically workable for adhering companies,” the DMA said in a letter to NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling.

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