Here's One Solution for the Mobile Privacy Problem: Open Source It

By Erin Griffith , written on July 25, 2012

From The News Desk

Last week Jon Potter, President of the Application Developers Alliance, posed an ultimatum to app developers:

You can fight with the White House and consumer advocates over privacy policy, or you can try to fix it.

The answer to that should be an easy one--let's fix it--and today one startup has taken the first step toward doing that. Docracy, a legal repository startup, has launched an effort to open source privacy policy language for mobile apps.

Check it out here.

Most app developers are aware of the issues they face on the privacy front. They're required to have one in place, and the policies vary by geography. Europe's privacy laws, for example, are stricter than those in the US. Nobody wants an address book-gate on their hands. But developers don't quite know what to do about it. Half of all apps don't even make their policies available to users before their app is downloaded. For small, early stage apps, hiring a lawyer to suss out a proper privacy policy is too expensive.

"If you are an established development shop, you can afford to hire a lawyer, but if you think about the long tail of developers on the app store, these guys are told they need a privacy policy but no one is telling them what to write in it," says Veronica Picciafuoco, director of content, partnerships and community and Docracy.

Docracy's founders--experienced mobile app developers themselves--have created three versions of a an app privacy policy for generic, ad-supported and location-based apps. Now, using Docracy's branching software, any developer can go in and contribute "as they would on GitHub."

It's an experiment in crowdsourcing legal language. When policy makers begin to write bills, they'll have a starting point for understanding where the app makers are telling their users. Likewise, when an app maker writes a privacy policy, he or she will have a starting point that the industry agrees is legally sound.

The Obama Administration last week hosted a voluntary stakeholder discussion on the topic, with the goal of exploring whether the app makers and consumer advocates work together to create privacy guidelines. "This environment is moving very quickly," says Picciafuoco. "But there are some points that everyone agrees on." Docracy's policy aims to make both sides happy.

The idea is that, similar to the way Creative Commons terms have become accepted and understood by publishers and readers alike, Docracy's open-sourced privacy policies will become recognizable by users. "Even if our model is very rough and just a start, people can start making copies and can tracking attributions, and users will eventually learn that it is the standard in the industry."

It's a bottom-up approach to legal language. If someone doesn't like it, they can branch into a better version they've composed. Even if a war of words break out, it's still more of a fix than a fight.