As the use of mobile devices skyrockets in the U.S. — smartphones, tablets and other devices — the Federal Trade Commission continues to search for ways to make their use safer. In many cases better safety equals more privacy and now the FTC is after the key players in the rapidly expanding mobile marketplace to better protect consumers.
For now, the FTC is going about this gently. It has just issued a staff report filled with recommendations to the builders of our new mobile world. The report and its recommendations are aimed at mobile marketplace players like Amazon, Apple, BlackBerry, Google, and Microsoft as well as the developers and designers of application, advertising networks, analytics companies and their trade associations.
Most of the recommendations involve making sure that consumers — that's us — are given up-to-date and easy-to-understand disclosures about what information is being gathered about them, how this data will be used and, most importantly, the option of declining to allow this data to be collected.
The report recommends that mobile platforms and apps should:
- Provide just-in-time disclosures to consumers and obtain their affirmative express consent before allowing apps to access sensitive content like geo-location;
- Consider providing just-in-time disclosures and obtaining affirmative express consent for other content that consumers would find sensitive in many contexts, such as contacts, photos, calendar entries, or the recording of audio or video content;
- Consider developing a one-stop "dashboard" approach to allow consumers to review the types of content accessed by the apps they have downloaded;
- Consider developing icons to depict the transmission of user data;
- Promote app developer best practices. For example, platforms can require developers to make privacy disclosures, reasonably enforce these requirements, and educate app developers;
- Consider providing consumers with clear disclosures about the extent to which platforms review apps prior to making them available for download in the app stores and conduct compliance checks after the apps have been placed in the app stores; and
- Consider offering a Do Not Track (DNT) mechanism for smartphone users. A mobile DNT mechanism, which a majority of the Commission has endorsed, would allow consumers to choose to prevent tracking by ad networks or other third parties as they navigate among apps on their phones.
"The mobile world is expanding and innovating at breathtaking speed, allowing consumers to do things that would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "These best practices will help to safeguard consumer privacy and build trust in the mobile marketplace, ensuring that the market can continue to thrive."
Over the last few years, the mobile industry has said it wants to avoid the government making regulations governing many of the ways it does business. "Self-regulation" is the mantra they preach. In the past self-regulation has had something of a spotty record — to put things in the most favorable light. So this gentle list of "recommendations" comes with the implied warning — if you don't do it, and do it quickly, to better protect consumers you can expect we'll force you to do it.
It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts.