Direct Line Blog

More Congressional action, same industry inaction

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Congress is finally wrapping its head around mobile devices' GPS capabilities. Last week saw two bills introduced that would outlaw nonconsensual location tracking and sharing.

The "Location Privacy Protection Act of 2011," introduced by Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.), calls for a location-tracking opt-in form, separate from an app's or service's privacy policy, terms and conditions, etc.

The "Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act," introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and cosponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), also bans location-tracking without consent but does not explicitly call for a separate opt-in form. Thee bill is also a bit hazy about the scope of consent. From the bill:  

"It shall not be unlawful under this chapter for a person to intercept geolocation information pertaining to another person if such other person had given prior consent to such interception..."

Not to wade deeply into legalese, but the passage's use of "such" could dilute the law. If I were a malicious developer, I could easily read the bill to mean if a consumer opts-in for App A (ex. Foursquare) to access my device's location, then App X could be grandfathered in. I assume loose reading not to be the senators' intention, but I assume just as easily that, if the bill passes, Silicon Backalley lawyers will challenge a narrower reading.

Say what I will about Washington being alarmingly technologically illiterate - a senator at a recent digital privacy hearing asked if Apple could track his location when his phone's powered off - Congress is finally taking technology a little more realistically. There's less fearmongering and more thoughtful bills.

Just as I only think one of the aforementioned mobile-location bills merits passage (Franken's, for its pragmatism), I think only one, maybe two, online privacy bills are ready to and will pass. Given the ongoing turf war between Franken's Senate Judicial Committee and Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.V.) Senate Commerce Committee, that passage could not be until next year, but it will happen. There's an appetite for it.

And if a data breach hits Facebook and lands online privacy affront Time magazine's cover with a companion 60 Minutes segment, that passage will be an early Christmas present for Ralph Nader and company and a nightmare scenario for an advertising industry unable to promote sufficiently for its future.
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