And I thought last week was data privacy’s tipping point!

By Anne Collier

The topic probably sounds a little dry, but it certainly affects parents of kids who love Web and mobile apps, a high percentage that’s getting higher. You may have noticed that I’ve been covering mobile app safety and privacy more of late (see recent key developments in “Related links”). That’s just because we’re seeing major momentum in the data privacy ecosystem from industry, law enforcement, and government:

* A report from the White House yesterday (2/23) on user data privacy (see Educause)
* California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s agreement (announced 2/22) with “six of the largest companies in the mobile device market” – Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Research in Motion – because “some 22 of the 30 most-downloaded mobile apps don’t have privacy policies,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
* Google’s agreement yesterday to include a “Do Not Track” button in its Chrome browser, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports
* A new app developer trade association and, separately, developers’ manifesto, as well as a trailblazing report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (at Sesame Workshop in New York) on kids’ educational apps (see my recent post about all this)
* A ratings project at mobile carriers’ trade association CTIA
* The FTC’s report on kids’ mobile apps

California’s agreement with the mobile device companies, including Apple and Google, which have the biggest app stores on the Web , “stops short of saying that [the companies] will enforce privacy-policy requirements or kick apps that don’t have a policy out of their stores,” the Journal reports, “but the companies agreed they would help educate developers on their legal obligations.”

I believe that will help because, based on a gathering of app developers I attended recently, there seems to be genuine interest among those that don’t employ ranks of corporate attorneys to learn more about those obligations. In effect, there are signs of two things: 1) that this “wild west” is getting more civilized, and 2) it’s going to take the collaboration of all stakeholders – not just lawmakers and law enforcement – to civilize it. And it is new territory because – in an ecosystem involving more than 800,000 apps (that number growing fast), more than 50,000 developers worldwide, and hundreds of millions of users representing that many points of data distribution worldwide – this is not your grandmother’s or even mother’s regulatory context. Regulatory power is getting distributed.

What that means for parents is the need for more information and education. Those come in a number of ways:

* From experience – using the devices and apps ourselves, so we understand what our children are enjoying and doing, both the benefits and risks involved
* From researchers like the Cooney Center
* From privacy advocates such as and
* From government (e.g., the FTC and Attorney General Harris’s agreement with the six companies applies globally if even a single Californian downloads the app. His audio interview with her is at CNET.)
* From industry – the privacy information that will increasingly be associated with each product and the ratings and user reviews in app stores

Two people who also strongly believe in consumer education but stand at opposite poles on regulation are Adam Thierer (anti-) and Marc Rotenberg (pro-). Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in an audio interview that EPIC not only supports the Obama administration’s “Privacy Bill of Rights” but “will continue to press for taking the principles the White House set out and see that they’re established in law.” Thierer, author and policy analyst at George Mason University, writes in “The Problem with Obama’s ‘Let’s Be More Like Europe’ Privacy Plan” at that the “Privacy Bill of Rights” is vague, patterned after Europe’s “Fair Information Practice Principles” (FIPPs, which he argues jeopardizes business), and charts “a new course for America … that will entail a significant increase in government oversight of the Internet and online commerce,” with associated unintended consequences – such as new skills on the part of children (and parents) in evasion of age restrictions created by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (he cites a study I covered here).

We’re at a very challenging impasse right now, at a time of rapid product and service growth and development and very little consumer education. Conditions like that put great pressure on regulators, so I hope they’ll move carefully. I agree with those who call for more education and less regulation. Since both technology and children change so fast (even in a single family, much less across whole populations) and since the use of tech by children is getting increasingly individualized, regulation can’t even come close to protecting children as nimbly and appropriately as their parents can.

Related links

* “The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights: Are We the Consumers, Or Are We the Product?” in, where the subhead is: “Yes, we want Google, Facebook, and all other online services to keep our information private. But if we want them to remain free, something’s gotta give”
* In CNET, Larry reports that state Attorney General Harris’s agreement with the six companies applies globally if even a single Californian downloads the app. Listen to his audio interview with her on that page.

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