Policymakers mull privacy wake-up call for app companies


This article is part of our special report Mobile and Broadband.

SPECIAL REPORT / Up to 15,000 representatives of the world’s leading app makers who begin meeting in Barcelona today (25 February) face a “wake up call” when European policymakers come up with proposals to strengthen privacy rules in the sector later this week.

The new rules are being put together by the European Commission’s data protection task force – the Article 29 Working Party – made up of representatives from national EU data protection authorities.

In October, the working party said that it would publish guidance this year in light of the rapid increase in the use of smartphones, the amount of downloaded apps worldwide and the existence of many small-sized app-developers.

The issue is on the agenda of the group’s meeting later in the week, scheduled for 2627 February in Brussels.

Simultaneously app producers will be joining their counterparts in the smartphone sector at the week-long Barcelona congress – organised by the mobile operators’ global representative body, the GSMA – have conflicting views on the issue.

App makers want no ‘big brother’

The issue of geolocation is central to the debate, with many apps designed to establish the whereabouts of their user, even if this is based on anonymous data.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, Harri Koponen, chief operations officer of Rovio said that most games app manufacturers rely on geolocation functions to improve their services. – Rovio produces the popular Angry Birds game app.

“Our interest is ensuring that they [users] get the best service, we are not selling their data,” Koponen said, adding: “We do not use the location of the equipment to sell anything to the user, but to guarantee a minimum downloading speed.”

Geolocation helps to identify where there might be a problem with the functioning of the app service, he explained. “If there is too low a speed, then the bandwidth might not be enough, if the service is going to be seamless then it is really necessary for us to use this data.”

Koponen reflects the concerns of other smaller games app makers who fear that new rules might force them to hire extra staff to deal with additional data management.

“It is completely unnecessary and an unwanted process, kind of ‘big brother is watching you’,” said Koponen.

Operators want level playing field

The mobile operators meanwhile feel aggrieved that proposed rules on privacy affecting their businesses are bypassing the internet-based app industry because the rules do not apply to the internet.

”We shouldn’t expect users to understand that different rules apply to functionally equivalent services delivered via different technologies,” said Martin Whitehead, a director of GSMA Europe.

“Consistency in privacy experiences will help raise people’s awareness that an app or service has privacy implications and that they need to make choices. Consistency in law will also make it easier for business to meet users’ privacy interests as well as their legal obligations,” Whitehead added.

In January, a number of European mobile operators signed up to a new Accountability Framework, created by GSMA, designed to tighten up app privacy for users. Under the new framework, the operators committed to hold app providers responsible for vigilance and transparency in respect of users’ data.

“The framework will help us, as well as the developer community, to create exciting applications and provide greater transparency and security with mobile apps,” said Hannes Ametsreiter, chief executive of Telekom Austria Group.

“This is especially important for social networks and cloud services where we observe a growing concern among users regarding their personal data.”

Mobile World Congress to showcase mobile as catalyst

The issue has already occupied policymakers in the United States, the Netherlands and Canada. In December, the California attorney general sued Delta Air Lines for its failure to include a privacy policy within its mobile app, and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched a report on children’s data collection through mobile apps. Canadian and Dutch regulatory authorities have also recently published new guidelines on app privacy.

Any new guidelines will be keenly watched by Europe’s app manufacturers. “I am expecting strong ‘wake-up call’ on privacy for the app makers to emerge from the Article 29 committee this week,” one leading network operator representative told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.

Entertainment and apps businesses are highly competitive, with the Nordic region representing a hub for apps companies. The app market is worth billions of euros and represented 15,000 delegates to the Barcelona conference last year. At least that many are expected to attend this year.

The Mobile World Congress will also focus on a series of events designed to showcase connected cities, which will be designed to demonstrate the extent to which developments in mobile are driving innovations across other sectors such as automobile and energy. The telecoms industry wants to use the Congress to showcase its ability to act as a catalyst for the economy at large.

Representatives of the mobile sector will converge on the Spanish city Barcelona this week for the sector's largest congress.

App manufacturers and mobile operators will be amongst those showcasing their products at the gathering, but the explosion in the use of smartphones and digital devices are raising increasing numbers of questions over privacy.

  • 25-28 Feb.: Mobile World Congress, Barcelona
  • 26-27 Feb.: Article 29 Working Party to meet in Brussels

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