In a country where most consumers sleep with their mobile device within arm's reach and happily admit they'd give up caffeine before connectivity, we take for granted how swiftly and decisively wireless has become central to our modern lives. Put a powerful computer in the palms of our hands, add the Internet and subtract the cords, and you've got a winner. But what precisely makes mobile transformative?
There's no one answer to the question I pose. But location-based services are at the heart of mobile innovation, providing some of the most thrilling demonstrations of the wireless Internet's value and vast capabilities. Need to find a local gas station, emergency room, or pharmacy? There's an app for that. Special deals from your favorite stores and brands? At your fingertips. Want to know that your teenager is where she or he says on Saturday night? See for yourself on your mobile device. Hail a taxi? No need to raise your hand. Lost? Get directions. Misplace your smartphone? It can tell you where to pick it up. Dial 911 in an emergency? Help will find you.
In addition to the benefits they provide, location-based services also raise important questions about privacy that must be responsibly addressed.
Last week, the U.S. General Accountability Office issued a report spotlighting these questions and urging timely progress on the Obama Administration's efforts to address mobile privacy issues. Over two years ago, industry developed guidelines to protect the privacy of America's 300 million wireless subscribers when they use location-based services. And the government - wisely - has kept vigilant watch over this fast-developing market.
In February, the Administration upped the ante by releasing a blueprint for developing a "framework for protecting privacy and promoting innovation ." It also called for--and got underway--a collaborative process that brings industry, consumers and government together--to chart a balanced path forward.
Consumers, too, want balance. They want control of how their private information is used, and they need to be able to trust companies with personal information. Equally true, they want location-based services to continue making their lives easier, safer, and healthier. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, nearly 3 out of 4 smartphone owners use their device to get real-time, location-based information. And the number of U.S. consumers using location-based services has doubled in the past year to 41% of the nation.
Some argue this gives even more urgency to the privacy issue, and they're right. But equally important is getting the approach right. Today's debate is not mobile privacy--for or against. It's about how best to inform and empower consumers with regard to their privacy choices, and how best to advance this vision with consistency across a richly diverse and ever-changing mobile ecosystem where virtually all players have the capacity to touch consumers' private information.
Here are three key considerations for government efforts to address mobile privacy:
Twenty years of innovation leadership--on the Internet broadly and mobile specifically--have taught us that prescriptive government policies are counterproductive in the face of rapidly advancing innovation. For this reason, the GAO Report points to the importance of the "multistakeholder process" advanced by the White House and led by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). This process is currently focused on developing voluntary, enforceable codes of conduct to promote transparency in mobile app privacy policies. Convening stakeholders to work together on a consensus-oriented code is the approach most likely to yield meaningful privacy advances in a fast-moving environment. Rigid, non-flexible rules that do not - and can not - make provisions for tomorrow's technology are doomed to failure.
We need one privacy framework for one connected world, and all who wish to play in it. The FCC's regulatory authority over location-based wireless services is largely limited to companies defined by antiquated rules as "telecommunications" providers. This approach may have made sense back when wireless service providers offered "walled garden" Internet services, but it's no way to watch over today's diverse and rapidly shifting mobile ecosystem. Wireless service providers, device makers, search engine companies, application developers, social networks auto companies--and many more participants--all intersect with consumers' personal data. Regulations targeting just one segment of this vast ecosystem cannot be effective in informing and empowering consumers.
As the White House has proposed, privacy codes of conduct should be watched over by the Federal agency with broad authority to protect consumers against unfair or deceptive acts or practices--the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has been steadily increasing its resources and oversight on mobile privacy and is well-positioned for this role.
Whether it's a Facebook or Foursquare check-in, AT&T's Family Map, Starbucks' store locator, or other location-based services, all players in the mobile wireless ecosystem must work under the same guidelines so that the rules of the road are consistent and clear for consumers. Be transparent. Ask permission. Let consumers know what you're going to do with personal information, so they can make informed decisions.
Central to our modern information society is the freedom to innovate, collaborate and push our economy and society forward. President Obama so far has struck the right balance, and the GAO report makes clear that it's important to keep focus and deliver on these issues. The White House report sums up the central imperative wisely: "It is incumbent on us to do what we have done throughout history: apply our timeless privacy values to the new technologies and circumstances of our times."
It's a mantra for connected privacy--and a mantra for American innovation.
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Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future (www.mobilefuture.org), has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served in the Clinton Administration as a Director on the National Security Council.
Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition comprised of and supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to www.mobilefuture.org.