Recent actions by the White House, the Department of Commerce, the Federal Trade Commission and the California attorney general were important reminders to app developers, app stores and mobile platforms about empowering consumers to protect their own privacy, and ensuring that parents are empowered to protect kids’ privacy. These are fair reminders and might even be considered warnings to the industry. During this effervescent period of innovation and entrepreneurial energy, sober reminders of fairness and social values can be helpful.
Many of the headlines and comments about the recent FTC report (“Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing”) overstated the February 2012 report’s actual findings. Headlines about the FTC report criticized app developers for failing to protect kids’ privacy, but the report did not draw such harsh conclusions. Nor could it have; the commission staff never downloaded the apps it evaluated, never read the apps’ privacy policies, and certainly did not measure the apps’ compliance with their stated policies before issuing its report.
The mobile app industry is a significant economic driver, according to recent studies, and all signs point to years of expansion. Entrepreneurs are overflowing with ideas, and investors are funding startups that create high-paying jobs. Consumers are enjoying extraordinary benefits as new products and services offer competition, creativity and excitement.
Public policymakers should welcome this success during our time of economic retrenchment. Economist Michael Mandel, who authored one of the studies mentioned above, recently noted that a critical factor in maximizing the economic benefit of this entrepreneurial energy is “light-touch regulation.” In the area of privacy, our legislative and regulatory history demonstrates that industry standards, best practices, and light-touch regulation are the norm. A clear reading of recent government announcements supports this continuing trend.
There is an important addition to light-touch regulation in this case: rhetorical restraint. Not a muting of public discussions, and not ignoring mistakes by industry. Innovation and entrepreneurial zeal can have frustrating side effects that deserve criticism and reference as cautionary warnings. But there is no value in pointing fingers at the industry when it is the industry that holds the solution.
Energetic entrepreneurs are not automatically devoid of social values. App developers agree that privacy protections are essential, and that as an industry we need to be equal parts vigilant and innovative to meet consumers’ privacy expectations. App stores constantly promote tools, techniques and continuously developing “best practices,” and these are increasingly employed by mobile app developers. To put it bluntly, violating individual privacy is a hornet’s nest that no app developer wants to disturb. To guard against those missteps, many tools that government is calling for already exist and, if anything, should be promoted.
Fortunately, the FTC report was just a starting point in one of many discussions and processes that will shape the evolution of mobile app privacy law, policies and practices. And though app developers are challenged today by the many government agencies and industry stakeholders seeking primacy in defining the end game, the collaborative industry and regulatory processes set in motion will eventually yield a rational ecosystem that respects adult and child privacy.
Jon Potter is founder of the Application Developer Alliance, an industry consortium representing mobile application developers.