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App trade group offers icons to alert users to privacy policies

The ACT developed a set of icons to indicate to consumers the level of privacy they can expect from each app. (Courtesy of the Association for Competitive Technology)

The confusion over digital privacy laws has led some app developers to work on bridging the information gap.

Instead of expecting consumers to read lengthy privacy policies about how their personal data could be used, the Association for Competitive Technology — an international trade organization representing developers — has released a set of visual icons for developers to present to consumers along with their apps. Developers can download icons from the ACT Web site, indicating whether the app allows in-app purchases, uses location data, links to social networking, or displays ads.

The ACT is one of many other non-government associations working on similar icons, a Federal Trade Commission attorney said. Though the FTC will not enforce the use of these or any other unofficial icons, the commission has stated that it would encourage players within the industry to test new ways to provide information to consumers, especially the parents of young children.

In the early stages, the ACT hopes its icons catch on for developers, both in the United States and internationally, ACT executive director Morgan Reed said.

Some are skeptical. Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, said it is unclear whether parents or children would understand what the apps really mean, since their are no standards governing such practices.

She views the icons as a preemptive attempt to stop the FTC from adopting more privacy regulations. Recent updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act could prohibit developers from collecting information about a child’s use of an educational app, for example — such as which parts children are able to master quickly, or which parts present challenges.

“This is an attempt to convince the FTC that updating and strengthening COPPA and the regulations under it [are] not needed,” Grant said. “We don’t think that generally icon programs are very successful – people don’t know what the icon stands for, and sometimes assume it means something it doesn’t.”

Developers like Jason Krogh, founder and director of Canadian media company Zinc Roe, are also unsure if they’ll use icons like ACT’s. More than half of Zinc Roe’s revenue comes from U.S. downloads, so Krogh said he knows the company must comply with U.S. digital privacy laws — but he is skeptical about whether enough developers and consumers will use the icons to gain acceptance.

“At this point, we’ve decided to be in ‘wait-and-see mode’ to see if one or the other [sets of icons] gains traction,” Krogh said. “In theory, I think it’s a great idea. In practice I want to see exactly how it’s done,” he said, noting that he doesn’t want to accidentally endorse anyone else’s views by using the unofficial icons.

But he said he understands how, especially if the icons become widely known, not using them could put his company at a competitive disadvantage. “If a non-knowledgeable customer learned about the icons and saw that an app wasn’t presenting the icons, they could say, ‘you didn’t say you’re not collecting information,’” he said.

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