Apple Faces Pushback On Capitol Hill Over Location Privacy Protections

The same day Senate Democrats introduced a sweeping privacy bill, a lawmaker in the House floated the idea that a recent move by Apple to protect users' privacy could violate antitrust laws.

"I'm increasingly concerned about the use of privacy as a shield for anti-competitive conduct," Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) said, according to The Washington Post.

"There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor."

Cicilline, who is leading an antitrust investigation into tech companies, was reacting to a feature in iOS13 that allows users to wield more granular control over their location data.

That setting offers consumers the ability to grant access to their location data on a single occasion. Previously, consumers could configure their devices to always share location data, never share it, or share it when the particular app was in use -- but not on an occasion-by-occasion basis.

The setting received a somewhat mixed review from The New York Times. “The annoying part of this is that if you tap Allow Once, you will be asked how you want to share your location data every time you open the app,” the paper wrote. “But it’s worth using for peace of mind if you don’t fully trust an app that wants your location -- a weather app from an unknown start-up, for example.”

When iOS13 users allow location tracking on a more permanent basis, Apple sends them periodic reminders that they're being tracked, along with prompts to reconsider their privacy settings.

Some developers objected to these changes, arguing that Apple itself collects data about users' locations, and then offers its own apps that draw on that data. Those Apple-created apps have an advantage over apps created by third parties, the developers argued, because the Apple-created apps aren't continually nudging users to examine their privacy settings.

An Apple spokesperson reportedly said the company is working with developers and taking feedback “on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences,” according to the Post.

It's not yet clear whether Cicilline's comments signal an imminent crackdown on tech companies.

But it's worth pointing out that Cicilline isn't the first observer to pit privacy against competition.

Consider, back in 2013 that former Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen criticized the agency's do-not-track recommendation. Had the recommendation been followed, consumers would have been able to easily and permanently opt out of having their data collected by ad companies.

Ohlhausen suggested that this type of regime would effectively favor large companies that collect data directly from consumers at the expense of independent ad-tech companies that gather data through relationships with publishers.

“New privacy restrictions may have an effect on competition by favoring entrenched entities that already have information, over new entities,” she said six years ago. “A policy that limits the ability of advertisers to access new information, to reach consumers, can have unintended effects in the marketplace.”

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