E-commerce trade group: Mobile geolocation privacy bill is 'awful'

U.S. Senate legislation that would require mobile apps to get permission to check the geolocation of a user is among the bills that make up trade group NetChoice’s latest list of “awful” bills for e-commerce.

NetChoice sees the bill as requiring a pop-up notice every time a mobile app collects geolocation information, said Steve DelBianco, the trade group’s executive director. The sponsor of the bill disputed NetChoice’s reading of the Location Privacy Protection Act.

The bill, introduced by Senator Al Franken last June, would require mobile apps to get express authorization from users before collecting geolocation information. The bill would require mobile apps to give users “clear and prominent notice” about what geolocation information they collect. The bill would allow lawsuits against app providers that violate the rules, with damages of $2,500 per violation. The geolocation bill is No. 2 on NetChoice’s latest iAWFUL (Internet Advocates’ Watchlist for Ugly Laws) list, released Thursday.

DelBianco called the fines the “scariest” part of the bill. “It’s one thing to be incredibly annoying to your users by virtue of a federal law, but it’s another thing when it exposes you to lawsuits with statutory damages,” he said. A spokeswoman for Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said NetChoice is misreading the bill.The legislation would “not mean that our smartphones are going to be clogged with permission screens,” Franken said when he introduced the bill. “This can be done with one simple screen. My bill does not require a new permission screen from every subsequent company that gets your location. That would be impractical. It would not be smart.”

Other bills or laws on NetChoice’s seventh iAWFUL list since June 2009 include a group of state or local laws that have been used to fight against Internet services, including Uber.com, an online service for finding private drivers, and Airbnb.com, an online service allowing people to rent out their homes for short periods of time.

Also making the list is federal legislation that would allow states to collect sales tax on Internet purchases, even when the seller has no operations in the state. NetChoice would not object to sales tax collections if participating states adopted a uniform, simplified tax, but states are far from that long-time goal, DelBianco said.

Supporters of the sales tax bills say the current system, in which Internet-based sellers do not have to collect sales tax when they have no operation in the buyer’s state, is unfair to local businesses.

NetChoice also included on the list a White House effort to draft online privacy codes of conduct through a process involving Internet companies, privacy groups, and others. The White House proposal would give the U.S. Federal Trade Commission “broad authority” to create and enforce new privacy rules, NetChoice said.

Behavioral advertising that tracks user interests pays for many free services online, and the privacy codes could make it more difficult for companies to track user interests, DelBianco said. The proposed multistakeholder process to develop the privacy codes “is like a meat grinder” that mashes together a bunch of bad ideas, he said. “At the end of the multistakeholder process, you don’t get steak, you get hamburger.”

NetChoice’s members include AOL, eBay, Yahoo, and Facebook.

[Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant’s email address is grant_gross@idg.com.]

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