Senator Al Franken (D-MI) has written to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to ask both companies to require mandatory privacy policies for mobile apps that collect information via location services data. In a follow-up to the Senate hearing Mr. Franken convened on the subject of mobile privacy, Senator Franken made the request in a formal letter to the two CEOs.
Apple and Google were singled out because they run the two biggest online mobile app markets in the world. “Recent industry reports suggest that they each have more applications than the next five largest app stores combined,” he wrote.
“At the hearing,” he wrote in the letter, “I asked Dr. [Bud] Tribble [from Apple] and Mr. [Alan] Davidson [from Google] whether Apple and Google would commit to requiring that all applications in the Apple App Store and [Android Market] have clear and understandable privacy policies. I am writing today to renew this request, and ask if each of your companies would be willing to adopt this simple first step towards further protecting your users’ privacy.”
He made the case that few apps have such policies, while all apps should. He also noted that such policies from app developers wouldn’t magically eliminate all privacy concerns in emerging mobile markets, but said that, “it would be a simple first step” that would provide interested parties with a baseline of what kind of data are being collected, and how that data is being shared with third parties.
Failing a blanket requirement that all apps have such a policy, Senator Franken asked that at least those apps that use location services data be required to do so. He wants those apps to, “clearly specify what kind of information is gathered from users, how that information is used, and how it is shared with third parties.”
He closed by trying to hold both companies accountable for matching deeds with words, saying, “Apple and Google have each said time and again that they are committed to protecting users’ privacy. This is an easy opportunity for your companies to put that commitment into action.”
The implied meaning of the letter is that if Apple and Google were to require their app developers to include (and follow) such policies, they could avoid possible federal regulation on the issue. What’s interesting is how this would be practically managed by Google.
While Apple’s notorious control over its App Store and the contents therein would make instituting such mandates trivial from Apple’s point of few (though potentially burdensome for some developers, especially small developers), Google’s Android Market isn’t curated. Google can require such a policy all day long, but without some kind of curated litmus test for these policies, the company isn’t in a position to know that its apps comply.
Still, having the mandate would be a shift towards the benefit of consumer if even a small percentage of additional app developers adopted privacy policies.
Neither Apple nor Google have yet responded to Senator Franken’s letter.