Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Consumer Privacy and Protection in the Mobile Marketplace

May 19, 2011

Chairman Rockefeller asks Sec. Locke questions about strengthening manufacturing in America.WASHINGTON, D.C.—Thank you, Chairman Pryor, for holding this important hearing. There are 234 million mobile devices in use today. Seventy five percent of teenagers own a cell phone. And 72 percent of parents say they have slept with their cell phones.

The issue of mobile online privacy is an issue that affects nearly every American—young and old. Everywhere you look, someone is texting or tweeting, uploading an app, or downloading a photo. These devices have become ubiquitous. And the question of whether private information—known only to the person holding this device—is being collected or shared with others is critical. 

I think anyone who uses a mobile device has an expectation of privacy, and sadly that expectation is not always being met. The companies before us today—Apple, Google and Facebook—represent the major players in the online mobile marketplace. Last year, they testified before the Commerce Committee on commercial privacy, and I appreciate them appearing before the Committee again. 

The Association for Competitive Technologies represents the relative new players on the block—four years ago, no one knew what an “app” was, and today there are hundreds of thousands of them. I welcome you here on your first appearance before this committee. I can’t promise any of you that you won’t be asked to return. This committee has a long history of protecting consumer privacy, and I plan to build upon that history. 

As the online world grows and evolves, the consumer privacy issues that we must address become more complex and the stakes get higher. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that consumers understand what information about them is being collected online. They should have the ability to control that information collection.

Today’s smartphones and applications allow consumers to access information from all over the world, take and share pictures with friends and family, buy coffee, and even video conference on the go. Mobile devices are transforming the way consumers access the Internet, record the world around them, and share their lives with others. Moreover, this change is happening at a breakneck pace. In the three years since Apple launched its app store, more than 10 billion apps have been downloaded.

But with this new innovation comes new risk. As smartphones become more powerful, more personal information is being concentrated in one place. These devices are not really phones—they are miniature computers. Simple actions now have unintended consequences.

A mother posting a smartphone picture of her child online may not realize that time, date, and location information is also embedded in the picture, providing more information to the world at large than she ever intended. A teenager accessing an application may not realize that her address book is being accessed and shared with a third party. These third parties may use this information to target advertising at the individual or to compile a comprehensive profile of the individual based on a broad range of online and offline activities. The mobile marketplace is so new and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions.

But one thing is clear—consumers want to understand and have control of their personal information. According to a survey commissioned by the privacy certification company TRUSTe, 98 percent of consumers express a strong desire for better controls over how their personal information is collected and used by mobile devices and apps. Unfortunately, today this expectation is not being met. 

The technological prowess represented by this panel of witnesses is impressive. Hollywood made a movie about Facebook, Google shows up in popular culture every day, and Apple’s iPod transformed the way we listen to music.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses as to what industry is doing to address the privacy concerns of consumers. The companies here today are leaders in the industry. So today I ask you to lead. Your companies are some of the richest in the world, so your leadership is particularly important for those app developers that are small, one- or two-person operations. 

You can’t simply say “it is not my problem.” I ask you to work with application developers, both large and small, to create better privacy notices and controls that work in the mobile world. This effort should make strong privacy policies and practices for mobile apps the norm, not the exception.

Finally, I believe consumers deserve a simple, easy-to-use process to stop companies from collecting personal information. Last week, I introduced the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011, which directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish standards by which consumers can tell online companies, including mobile applications, that they do not want their information collected. The FTC would then make sure companies respect that choice.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on this and other legislative proposals to strengthen consumer privacy protections.