Just days after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) reintroduced his geolocation privacy bill, Jessica Rich of the Federal Trade Commission testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the agency’s efforts to protect the privacy of consumers’ geolocation data.
Rich, Director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, discussed some of the geolocation related enforcement actions with members of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. Most recently, the FTC reached a settlement agreement with Snapchat, a mobile messaging app that was charged with making various misrepresentations to consumers, including how their geolocation information would be shared.
Rich also threw her support behind Sen. Franken’s Location Privacy Protection Act – albeit with a caveat. Originally presented to the Senate in 2011, the proposed law would require that companies obtain permission before collecting location data about individuals from their phones, tablets, or vehicle navigation devices. If a company gathers geolocation data from 1,000 or more devices, the bill would mandate that the companies publicly disclose the details about the collection, whether or not the data is shared, and how individuals can opt out from collection or sharing.
“The commission very much supports the goals of the bill, which chiefly seeks to improve the transparency of geolocation services and give consumers greater control over the collection of their geolocation information,” she said. “The bill really represents an important step forward in protecting consumers’ sensitive geolocation information, notably by requiring clear and accurate disclosures and opt-in consent before geolocation data can be collected.”
While Rich praised the intent behind the legislation, she recommended that the FTC be given civil enforcement authority and that the Department of Justice prosecute criminal violation. As currently drafted, the bill gives the DOJ sole rulemaking and enforcement authority in consultation with the FTC, although a private right of action is also included.
Other speakers were less supportive of the legislation. “New laws or rules could impede future developments or discourage companies from continuing to compete over privacy features,” Lou Mastria, executive director of the Digital Advertising Alliance, told lawmakers at the hearing. He advocated for continued reliance upon industry self-regulation.
Dr. Robert Atkinson, president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, agreed. “While notification and consent to use geolocation data is appropriate for mobile apps today, it may not be so for other types of platforms in the future,” he testified. “For example, the use of geolocation information may be so integral to the purpose and functioning of a particular device that mandatory disclosures and consent requirements would be superfluous.”
To read the Location Privacy Protection Act, click here.
To read Rich’s prepared testimony, click here.
Why it matters: Could the geolocation bill fare better the second time around? Possibly, particularly as Sen. Franken has emphasized that his concern is focused on criminal actors and the use of so-called “stalking apps.” “I want to make one thing clear,” he said at the hearing. “Location-based services are terrific. I use them all the time.” With general support for outlawing these apps, other companies collecting geolocation data could be swept up in the law.