Congressional hearings regarding impending privacy legislation typically have focused on behavioral ad targeting, but location-based mobile targeting could be regulated, too. Two congressional subcommittees met this morning to discuss location-based technologies and their impact on consumer privacy and safety.
The relatively brief joint hearing served as a preliminary discussion about location-based data and its usage for targeting information and advertising to users of mobile devices. While nothing concrete emerged from the discussion, the potential is clear: impending comprehensive privacy legislation could regulate commercial use of location-based mobile data.
“I think you can expect to see this [topic] emerge as part of a larger legislative item,” said Rep. Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. The subcommittee held a joint hearing along with the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection; both are divisions of the House Committee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection.
Several witnesses agreed that use of location-based mobile data must be dealt with by privacy legislation expected to be proposed sometime this year. Among their concerns is the need for privacy controls to not only be present, but easily accessible to consumers. The familiar phrase of “notice and consent” – one that’s become common during hearings on behavioral ad targeting – was mentioned throughout the discussion.
While some lawmakers cautioned that any new rules must not hamper industry innovation or benefits of geographic data usage to consumers, at least one legislator suggested personal privacy is more important than business in some cases.
Rep. Edward Markey said he believes new rules should be put in place to protect consumer privacy where location-based data is concerned. Using the example of playing hooky to attend a New England Patriots/Carolina Panthers game and being caught when geographic data gives away his true location, Markey stated, “If it inhibits the business plans of a few software or telecommunications companies that’s tough luck.”
Mike Altschul, general counsel of wireless industry association CTIA, was among those cautioning against overreaching legislation, suggesting that “technology or unintended consequences will get in the way” of a privacy law.
Representatives of firms providing location-based data services suggested that ads employing such data for targeting result in higher click-through rates and more revenue.
In mentioning the increased adoption of services like Foursquare, Tony Bernard, VP of location data services firm Useful Networks, provided an example of just how fast mobile technologies and their uses can evolve. He explained that the “check-in” model, whereby consumers willingly provide others with information about their specific locations, “will become an even more ubiquitous feature.”
At this point, it’s unclear exactly what government body might oversee compliance with any future privacy legislation. However, when asked his opinion on the topic, John B. Morris, Jr., general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology suggested the Federal Trade Commission would be an appropriate body to oversee privacy regulation. Congress has signaled in previous hearings related to online privacy that the FTC could play an integral role in enforcement.
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