Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and RIM sign privacy accord

In step with President Obama, the California Attorney General reaches signed agreement on consumer privacy

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris signs accord with major IT companies (photo Government of California)

Within hours of President Obama’s announcement of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, the State Attorney General of California, Kamala D. Harris, announced an accord to protect consumers’ privacy. (Related: Internet Privacy Gets White House Attention)

Signing on the accord negotiated with the Federal Department of Justice were Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, RIM and HP. The agreement also includes major mobile service providers and is global in scope.

“Attorney General Harris forged the agreement with six companies whose platforms comprise the majority of the mobile apps market: Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research In Motion,” said the press release from Harris’ office. “These platforms have agreed to privacy principles designed to bring the industry in line with a California law requiring mobile apps that collect personal information to have a privacy policy. The majority of mobile apps sold today do not contain a privacy policy.” 

This announcement comes as the public has been hit repeatedly by news that their privacy was being sold or used commercially by at least Apple and Google. Microsoft has maintained it respected the privacy of its customers. In the first week of February it was revealed that an iPhone app by Path was stealing user names, email and physical addresses and storing the data indefinitely on unencrypted servers. (Huffington Post)

Accord rational and details

Your personal privacy should not be the cost of using mobile apps, but all too often it is,” said Attorney General Harris.

Apple apps stealing email and other private information

“This agreement strengthens the privacy protections of California consumers and of millions of people around the globe who use mobile apps,” Attorney General Harris continued. “By ensuring that mobile apps have privacy policies, we create more transparency and give mobile users more informed control over who accesses their personal information and how it is used.”

On first glance it would appear the State of California cannot bind IT companies globally. However, Harris has reached an accord that is global in scope.

Privacy policies are an important safeguard for consumers. Privacy policies promote transparency in how companies collect, use and share personal information. The agreement with the platforms is designed to ensure that mobile apps comply with the California Online Privacy Protection Act. The Act requires operators of commercial web sites and online services, including mobile apps, who collect personally identifiable information about Californians to conspicuously post a privacy policy.

This agreement will allow consumers the opportunity to review an app’s privacy policy before they download the app rather than after, and will offer consumers a consistent location for an app’s privacy policy on the application-download screen. If developers do not comply with their stated privacy policies, they can be prosecuted under California’s Unfair Competition Law and/or False Advertising Law.

The agreement further commits the platforms to educate developers about their obligations to respect consumer privacy and to disclose to consumers what private information they collect, how they use the information, and with whom they share it. The platforms will also work to improve compliance with privacy laws by giving users tools to report non-compliant apps and committing companies to implement processes to respond to these reports.

In six months, Attorney General Harris will convene the mobile application platforms to assess privacy in the mobile space.

There are more than 50,000 individual developers who have created the mobile apps currently available for download on the leading platforms. There are nearly 600,000 applications for sale in the Apple App Store alone, and another 400,000 for sale in Google’s Android Market. These apps have been downloaded more than 35 billion times.

Industry and media reaction

Despite the protests of industry pundits that President Obama could not and should not regulate privacy on the internet, this accord shows that it is possible to achieve industry consensus voluntarily and without Congressional approval.

Computerworld wrote yesterday in a story entitled Obama online privacy plan faces challenge “Privacy groups laud the effort, but note the White House faces difficult task in getting top Internet companies on board.”

Wired, in an editorial entitled We’ll Handle Google And Apple, Mr. President; You Worry About SOPA, PCFIPA, ACTA, And Big Media said “But if you’ll forgive me for saying so, Mr. President, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Google, Apple, Comcast, tracking cookies, deep packet inspection — this is something we can handle with minimal assistance. Tech is a young, fast-moving field, and tends to regulate itself, perhaps because the Internet is the collective medium of billions, and tyrants don’t live long here. And to be honest, laws passed by the U.S. are considered more rough guidelines, to be transgressed at will by individuals or multinationals.”

Other commentary and background

Wall Street Journal Tech Giants Agree to Deal on Privacy Policies for Apps

Time Magazine The White House Gets Behind New Internet Privacy Efforts

Wall Street Journal Your Apps Are Watching You

From California Attorney General press release

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