The Politics of Apps

There is increased attention on children’s online privacy, especially as it relates to mobile apps. What are the key issues, and what does all of this mean for app developers and parents?

This article outlines my observations after a two-day session on Capitol Hill discussing children’s privacy. At this point, there are more questions than answers. But being aware of the questions could be the first step in solving the problem.

The Issues

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (or COPPA) prohibits operators of “websites and online services” from knowingly collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children under 13 years of age without parental consent.  Should COPPA apply to, or be amended for, mobile apps?

In May, U.S. Senator Rockefeller called a hearing with Apple, Google, Facebook, and the Association for Competitive Technology to explore how information is being shared in this mobile world. (This hearing took place after U.S. Senator Franken focused on location-based services earlier in the month). The objective of the hearing is illustrated in Rockefeller’s press release:

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.

As privacy takes the spotlight, government oversight and legislation emerge. This includes an official request from U.S. Senator Franken for Apple and Google to require privacy policies, plus a bill in the house to amend COPPA (the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011). Both actions aim to bring privacy to the forefront of this emerging mobile market.

How might increased government attention impact apps for kids?

  • Will legislation enable indie app developers to have the resources to innovate? Many developers are concerned about the increase in legal fees to ensure compliance with the new laws, which may edge out the Mom and Pop developers from the marketplace.
  • Will parents have a diverse range of choices in apps for kids? Currently, parents have a wide range of apps to address special needs, early learning, storybooks, and educational games. If only the big companies are left in the market, what will happen to all of the creative ideas that parent developers are introducing to appstores on a daily basis?
  • Who should define “privacy”, and how is the definition of privacy changing as mobile technologies evolve? Will each technological innovation result in a new law?
  • Can parents make informed choices with the current app rating systems? Is “no sexual or violent content” enough of a label to disclose all features in an app that deem it age-appropriate?

What might this mean for app developers?

  • Do you have a privacy policy? Is it clearly written and accessible?
  • Do you have features in your app that might take your customers by SURPRISE?
  • Does your app include internet connectivity, geo-location, push notifications, advertisements, and/or data collection, tracking or analytics? If so, do you let parents know why the app requires these features?
  • Can parents make an informed choice about your product based on your app description?
  • Are you familiar with COPPA and how it might relate to your app?
  • Are you familiar with the Code of Ethics for Publishers of Interactive Media, drafted by the Children’s Technology Review?

Parents, are you up to speed with technology?

  • Are you aware of the settings on your smartphone that help customize the features of your phone? (For iPhone: Settings > General > Restrictions).
  • Have you checked out these three tips from Common Sense Media about managing in-app purchases?
  • Do the apps you download contain hyperlinks that connect to other websites? Are you OK with the other websites the app is connecting to?
  • Does your child know your iTunes password?
  • Are your location services turned on or off?
  • Do the apps you download enable registration to online communities with your consent?

Points to Ponder

As apps become clever and more customized, we walk a fine line between enhancing and infringing upon the user experience. It helps to be a “Mom With App” developer because we can see the debate from both points of view: as a parent-consumer who wants to protect their children online, and as an independent-developer creating products for a new marketplace.

As described by the San Francisco Chronicle over the weekend: “As an industry, we need to be open and honest about how we use data and we also have to help consumers understand the benefits of how their data is being used”.   Let’s take this a step further to round-out the conversation. It’s more than just about “data being used”, it’s about “anytime/anywhere ability to connect and interact with data”.

The beauty of the kids’ app marketplace is that many of the developers who are closest to the child, are creating for the child. Mom and Pop developers are succeeding alongside big companies like Disney. This type of product diversity contributes to consumer choice, and enables new opportunities for small businesses to play a role in our recovering economy. Now, can we all work together to handle the responsibility?

Lorraine Akemann | Editor | Moms With Apps

Syndicated on


P.S. I couldn’t resist including my snapshot of the Capitol Building, taken while sprinting from the House to Senate mid-meetings, high heels in hand. Gotta love that open democracy! Thank you ACT for hosting us.

One Reply to “The Politics of Apps”

  1. Thanks for advocating for children and their privacy (as a parent and developer)! Your article was very enlightening and informative.

    Great checklist for parents. We must be more informed and aware of the tech that we use on our phone. While location services may be appropriate for adults, we must remember the children and their safety/privacy. We must watch those links that usually pop up on free sites/downloads especially (cleverly hidden inappropriate information).

    I applaud your community of parent developers and know that their checklist will heighten awareness and and help us to keep all children safe!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *