New mobile app privacy efforts give hope for progress over regulatory mandates

Joining with digital privacy advocates, some of America’s largest technology companies and tech organizations – including the Software & information Industry Association, Intuit, Verizon and AT&T – voted to set new guidelines for mobile privacy.  Thanks to these new guidelines, many mobile apps will soon feature shorter, clearer privacy disclosures notifying users of the data being collected.
 
The effort was part of an Obama Administration commitment to creating voluntary privacy codes of conduct through multi-stakeholder collaboration.  The tech industry has long been a proponent of self-regulation to provide a trusted environment for mobile device users.  In a time of rapidly evolving technology, this approach is the only way to effectively maintain the right balance between consumer confidence and continued innovation – a balance that government regulation or legislation would most certainly fail to accomplish. 
 

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As important as it is to get mobile privacy right, there was much more at stake with last week’s vote.  Collaborative, multi-party, Department of Commerce-led efforts such as this hold the promise of eliminating the need for passing new laws in Congress and statehouses across the country.  They can obviate the need for costly and burdensome regulations, or for state attorneys general to sort out complex technical issues and force compliance.
 
This first initiative on mobile transparency was an important test for the effectiveness of the multi-stakeholder approach.  Had the administration’s approach faltered, it would likely have confirmed skeptics’ beliefs that only the government can set the rules of the road for digital privacy.  It would provide a green light to legislators in Washington and around the country, as well as federal and state regulators to take a rigid approach that could stifle innovation and harm America’s tech industry while offering no significant consumer benefit.  And it would leave us with little credibility when we suggest that the U.S. privacy framework is adequate and adaptable to challenges posed by evolving technology.
 
To be sure, the recent multi-stakeholder process on mobile transparency was not without bumps.  Beginning with substantial disagreement about broad goals at the outset of the process, the discussions went forward in fits and starts, producing a Code of Conduct that none of the participants view as perfect.
 
But that’s exactly the point. Despite a common recognition that growth and innovation in the vibrant mobile marketplace is dependent on consumer confidence and satisfaction, privacy advocates and industry don’t usually see eye-to-eye on exactly how to accomplish this objective. Reaching consensus among disparate perspectives is never easy – and that’s why the positive result of this recent process was so remarkable, and so important for the future of digital privacy.
 
This effort demonstrates that the process can work.  With the mobile privacy Code of Conduct, the tech industry now has an important roadmap for developers to create “short form” privacy notices for consumer apps.  Currently, we live in a world where privacy policies are long and complex; they are documents written by lawyers for lawyers.  The new Code, which will lead to clearer, simpler notices, represents a fundamental shift in the paradigm of privacy transparency.
 
Providing a list of key data elements collected by apps, along with a notice about relevant third party sharing will help consumer make informed decisions about which apps they want to use.  Many technology companies have already begun to compete with each other by enhancing privacy tools, and we expect this approach will further enable that practice.
 
Short form transparency will not eliminate the need for privacy policies.  Rather, it will complement these more detailed disclosures.  And to be sure, it will take a while for app providers to determine how to most effectively implement the Code.  But we expect that short form disclosures will become the norm for mobile apps in the not-too-distant future.
 
With all eyes on the President’s multi-stakeholder approach, the mobile Code of Conduct provides evidence that industry and civil society can avoid burdensome, costly regulation and reach practical consensus on a path forward.  This approach provides a win-win for consumers and innovation.

Wasch is president of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), the principal trade association for the software and digital content industries.