The U.S. Congress needs to pass new laws to protect smartphone customers from having their locations tracked by operating systems and applications, members of a Senate subcommittee said Thursday.
Democratic Senators John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia and John Kerry of Massachusetts called on Congress to pass an Internet privacy bill focused on giving consumers control over their location data on smartphones and their personal data on the Internet. Smartphone apps are "totally unregulated" in terms of privacy protections, Rockefeller said during a hearing of the consumer protection subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
New rules protecting privacy on smartphones and on the Internet will create stronger consumer confidence in those industries, Kerry said during the hearing, in which lawmakers grilled representatives of Apple, Google and Facebook about their privacy practices. Thursday's hearing was the second in the Senate since it was reported that Apple and Google were tracking location information on smartphones without user permission.
"I believe that companies collecting people's information -- whether you're a tech titan or not -- ought to comply with just a basic code of conduct," Kerry said. "We need to establish what we as a society, in a country that has always valued privacy, believe is the basic, proper treatment of information."
Kerry and Rockefeller have both introduced online privacy bills in recent weeks. Kerry's bill would require Web-based businesses that collect consumer information to give clear notice about the data collection and allow consumers to opt out, while Rockefeller's bill would require online companies to honor consumer requests to opt out of tracking.
While Kerry and Rockefeller called for lawmakers to move forward on privacy legislation, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has "a number" of open investigations targeting mobile-phone privacy practices, said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. The FTC doesn't name the companies it is investigating, but in the past, the agency has brought complaints alleging unfair and deceptive business practices by companies that violate their own privacy policies.
Some senators and witness Morgan Reed questioned the need for new regulations. Heavy-handed regulation could slow the growth of the smartphone apps market, made up largely of small businesses, said Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a tech trade group.
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