Executives from Silicon Valley’s most valuable tech firms will once again face a grilling Thursday from a pack of senators who are intent on passing landmark privacy legislation as Valley companies cash in on the boom in mobile devices and social media.
Increasingly, the hottest tech companies focus on social media and exploit information about their users to make their services useful.
The senators, however, are concerned that the existing laws protecting consumers and their kids’ privacy are unclear and outdated.
Both Apple and Google’s lobbyists will testify in front of Senate Commerce’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. A new face on the scene will be Bret Taylor, Facebook’s chief technology officer, former CEO and Co-Founder of FriendFeed, and co-creator of Google Maps and related technology.Anyone interested in watching the hearing can watch via webcast here. Hit your refresh button 10 minutes before the hearing is scheduled to begin.
Facebook didn’t provide any details of the testimony that Taylor is likely to offer, but with his background and experience, it wouldn’t be surprising if he became the star testifier at the hearing answering questions from the senators about how the technologies of tracking and databases work.
The hearing will likely focus on Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)’s “Do-Not-Track” legislation, which he introduced last Monday, as well as questions relating to the tracking of children electronically either via mobile devices or online.
Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, Common Sense Media’s president, is also slated to testify, as will the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau’s Director David Vladeck.
Common Sense Media has called for new legislation to protect children’s privacy in the wake of a series of articles by the Wall Street Journal called “What They Know.”
One of the articles showed how online media place thousands of tracking cookies on kids’ browsers. The article made it clear that existing law is often ineffective at controlling what happens to the data gathered on the kids.
The trend is even more worrying to consumers and lawmakers as mobile devices such as Apple’s iPad, smart phones and other tablets explode in popularity, and apps for kids proliferate, but the terms on which they are offered, and how they work are not always clear.
A poll conducted by Common Sense Media and Zogby last Fall found that 85 percent of parents are more concerned about privacy issues online concerning their kids than they were five years ago, and that the majority of parents and teens don’t want their location information shared with anyone else without their permission.
A recent survey of the top 30 paid apps across all mobile platforms found that almost three quarters of them didn’t tell users how their personal information was being used.
In April, a couple of researchers published an article online that showed how Apple collects location-based data on its mobile devices, and how it keeps on collecting the information even if the device’s settings are changed.
Apple has since issued a statement clarifying that it tracks WiFi hotspots and cell towers, and not personal information, and it also updated its software to address the persistant tracking problem.
Nevertheless, the revelation sparked off an uproar — as well as a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Tuesday.
“We’ve seen these continuing stories — Wi-spy, Google Buzz, Facebook, the Apple tracking story — this is all piling on, and what we’ve got is a situation where the technology’s new, and it’s frightening to some people,” said Morgan Reed, the Association of Competitive Technology’s executive director. The group represents independent software and apps developers.
He says that his group is working with its members to do a better job of being clear about their policies.
Rockefeller’s legislation follows the FTC’s December recommendation to allow consumers to opt-out of being tracked.
In addition to requiring companies to offer an opt-out, it also has provisions that would require the anonymization of tracking data and its deletion in a timely manner.
The House has its own version of do-not-track, but it’s focused on kids. It’s expected that the senate commerce committee’s work could add a kid’s component and become companion legislation to the “Do Not Track Kids 2011,” discussion draft bill introduced last week by Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Ed Markey (D-MA.)
The legislation would require companies to obtain parental consent before collecting kids’ personal information, and ban them from using their data for targeted marketing online. “Kids” are defined as anyone under the age of 18.
Though the issues are complex, and Washington’s debated them for years, momentum seems to be picking up as social media and mobile devices have become part of everyday life.
“From the hot seat here, it sure as heck feels like a bonfire,” ACT’s Reed said about the blizzard of legislation and privacy-related activities happening on both in in DC and around state legislatures. “But we need to make sure that we preserve the ‘cool’ factor about what smart phones and mobile devices can do as we discuss all these privacy issues,”
The Federal Communications Commission is also stepping into the fray. It has announced a new workshop on location-based privacy to be held in Washington June 28.