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App developers mobilize around privacy issues

App developers are beginning to mobilize around privacy issues with the hope that they can take meaningful action and preclude the need for regulations that might hamper future growth.

These are good days for the app marketplace, with downloads continuing to grow and in-app advertising taking off, causing investors to pour significant amounts of money into the space. However, growing concern and increasingly hot rhetoric around the need for greater protection of consumer privacy in threatens to dampen these glory days.

?The message is that it is great that the government is involved but app developers don?t want for the government to decide how they should run their business,? said Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, Washington. ?They are innovators and the ones using this data and should be the ones who come to the table with solutions while the window is still open.

?There is a window over the next couple of months for the app community to propose how it needs to be moving forward,? he said.

Joining the conversation
Concern over privacy issues related to mobile apps has been growing because of a string of revelations indicating that some apps are uploading user contact names and otherwise accessing user information, often without permission.

There have also been several reports indicating that app stores and app developers are not providing the information needed to determine what data is being collected and who has access to it.

In response to these and other developments, representatives from the Application Developers Alliance, the Future of Privacy Forum, app developers and others met last week at Stanford University to exchange ideas around mobile app privacy.

?This was the beginning of a conversation that was going on but needed to be brought together to get a critical mass of developers to share what they are thinking about, the technological challenges they face and to share with regulators their thoughts,? said Tim Sparapani, senior advisor for policy and law at the Application Developers Alliance, Washington.

The concerns voiced by developers at the meeting include that regulators and legislators may take steps to impose rules and standards on the app industry. The fear is that by not letting app developers work out some of these issues themselves, government could end up creating a scenario that would hamper growth in the apps market and not provide the best solution for consumers.

?Many saw it as bad for consumers and a lost business opportunity if people impose a set of solutions instead of letting America?s best engineers tackle the problem head on,? Mr. Sparapani said.

App developers are looking at ways to simultaneously collect and use consumer data while protecting the data and should be allowed to pursue this work, per Mr. Sparapani.

Based on the positive response to the meeting, the App Developers Alliance is now planning a series of similar meetings with app developers that will take place in cities around the country with the first scheduled to happen on June 6 in Austin, TX.

The time is right
In the past, much of the conversation around app privacy has taken place between platforms such as Apple and Google and privacy advocates, which is one of the reasons why app developers are mobilizing to make sure they are part of the conversation.

App developers are reacting, in part, to a February agreement reached by California's attorney general with Apple, Google, Microsoft. The parties agreed to require developers to inform users about data usage policies before they download apps and for the need for ongoing education on the issue.

?The apps themselves in many ways know far better what can be done and should be done - they are the closest to it, getting information from consumers,? Mr. Sparapani said.

The California attorney general is planning to convene a group soon that will focus on developing mobile privacy standards for apps and has set a target for July.

The feeling that now is the time for app developers to step up and insert themselves into the privacy debate is also being driven by Apple?s recent moves to begin deprecating UDIDs because of privacy concerns. The UDID is a tracking mechanism that the vast majority of app developers use for analytics and without it, many are scrambling to find an alternative that is widely supported while addressing privacy.

?We have to be careful we don?t squelch an American dominated industry in its infancy before it reaches maturity,? Mr. Sparapani said.