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Lawmakers Aim Mobile Privacy Push at Apple, Google, Facebook

Apple, Google, Facebook Quizzed on Privacy
A black and a white Apple Inc. iPhone 4 side by side. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

U.S. lawmakers, considering legislation aimed at protecting consumers’ online privacy, said the market for smartphone applications needs to be regulated to prevent the inappropriate sharing of user data.

As mobile devices “become more powerful, more personal information is being concentrated in one place,” Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said today during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing in Washington on mobile privacy. “These devices are not really phones -- they are miniature computers.”

“The mobile marketplace is so new and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions,” Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee, said in prepared remarks released before the subcommittee hearing.

Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., along with the thousands of developers who make applications for their platforms, are facing increasing scrutiny from Congress over how they collect, use and store customer information, including data gathered from smartphones and other wireless devices. Executives from the three companies appeared before the panel today.

In its testimony, Google defended its handling of user data tied to mobile devices using its Android software, telling U.S. lawmakers that the company seeks consent for the collection and use of location information.

“Google is also very careful about how we use and store the data that is generated by these services,” Alan Davidson, the Mountain View, California-based company’s director of public policy, said in his testimony.

Protect Children

Rockefeller said yesterday that he sent letters to Apple and Google asking them whether applications that run on their mobile platforms comply with online privacy laws for children.

Catherine Novelli, vice president of worldwide government affairs for Cupertino, California-based Apple, told lawmakers today that the company doesn’t knowingly collect any information on children under age 13.

All location data gathered by Apple from iPhones and iPad tablet computers is anonymous and can’t be traced to individual users, Novelli said. The information is used to improve the functionality of the devices.

“Apple does not track users’ location, has never done done so and has no plans to do so,” she said, repeating what the company said during a May 10 hearing of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

‘Great Incentive’

When Apple finds that an app misuses customer data, the company gives the developer 24 hours to fix the problem or be removed from the App Store, Novelli said. That kind of warning is a “great incentive” for developers to correct such problems, she said.

Google provides parental controls to protect children and requires developers to rate the maturity level of apps offered in the Android market, Davidson said.

‘The location information sent to Google servers when users opt in to location services on Android is anonymized and stored in the aggregate,’’ Davidson said. “It’s not tied or traceable to a specific user.”

Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor told lawmakers that the Palo Alto, California-based company has “robust privacy protections.” If customers “lose trust in a service like Facebook, they will stop using it,” he said.

Taylor said that mobile technology “will play an increasingly important role” in how people use Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site. The company is “testing a new policy that communicates about privacy in a simple, interactive way,” according to his testimony.

FTC Role

Facebook requires developers of applications and websites that connect to its service to be “responsible stewards” of user information, Taylor said.

Pressed by Rockefeller on children’s use of Facebook, Taylor said that no one under the age of 13 can create an account and that Facebook removes underage users’ profiles.

“Whenever we find out that someone’s misrepresented their age on Facebook we shut down their account,” Taylor said. “We don’t allow people to misrepresent their age.”

Rockefeller, who introduced legislation May 9 that would let consumers choose not to have their online activities tracked, said the Federal Trade Commission wasn’t being “aggressive” enough on Internet privacy.

He asked David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, whether the agency is making sure that mobile applications comply with laws governing children’s online privacy.

Vladeck said the FTC “has a number of investigations ongoing in the mobile space, including apps aimed at children.”

“We are looking for good enforcement targets in this space,” Vladeck said.

Asked by Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, about agency staffing, Vladeck said the FTC was “short-staffed” but pursuing “vigorous” enforcement.

“I need more people,” he said.

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