Should an app platform have more responsibility over the apps that use it?

By Richard Nieva , written on January 11, 2013

From The News Desk

Every time Facebook tweaks its privacy settings, a mob calls for Mark Zuckerberg’s head. As a company, the latest attempt to stem the tide was adding a padlock icon prominently next to the website’s home button last month, just to make sure it’s crystal clear who can and can’t see your information.

But what if the next time it screwed up your privacy – this time on its mobile app – the company partially shared the blame? And, to give Facebook a profound sense of elation – shared it with the company’s fiercest competitors, Apple and Google?

That’s the kind of world we’d live in if the tech giants adhered to California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ best practices recommendations. Harris and the Attorney General’s office released a report yesterday full of guidelines for companies in the mobile ecosystem. She argues for some very clearheaded things. Chief among them, she wants companies policies to be more readable, with no legalese, in an attempt to get people to actually digest them.

In one section, she suggests things that companies with popular app platforms should do to make sure consumers are really aware of an app’s privacy issues. Those companies  – Apple, Google’s Android, Amazon, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and RIM – already signed a joint statement of principles in February 2012, agreeing to certain practices that would protect users’ privacy. One principle: the ability to read an app’s privacy policy before downloading the app, and putting it in a consistent and easily viewable place on the screen. Harris reiterated this request in her report. Of course, as these are just guidelines, none if them are enforceable by law.

Still, a signed document is at the very least a gentleman’s agreement. But in iOS 6, the Apple app store does not display privacy policies for every app across the board. They only appear on a case-by-case basis, depending on the developer. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Yelp all display their policies before downloading. Twitter and Foursquare don’t.

But even if Apple, as an app platform provider, did take more responsibility for the apps in its store, to an end user does it even matter? People generally tend to hold app developers accountable for their actions, as they should, especially the marquee apps. If an app service screws up, it would do itself no good to blame Apple, at least from a PR perspective. The only way it would really matter would be if Apple, as the platform, were to assume some legal responsibility for the apps in its store, and that’s unlikely to happen. It also seems unreasonable. Sure, a parent hosting a party for minors to drink alcohol means the parent is responsible for those kids. But Apple doesn’t quite seem like the "cool mom" from Mean Girls, who lets her sophomore-aged kid, Facebook, drink in the house, because it's safer that way.

Harris also suggests recommendations for after a user downloads the app as well. One is the broad guideline, “Help educate consumers on mobile privacy,” with a few bullets under it, including one that calls on platforms to encourage users to read the privacy policy after they have downloaded the app. “Educating” users takes any number of forms, from linking to a general page that says, “Don’t forget to check out the privacy policy after you download the app,” to actually alerting the user with a notification upon loading the app for the first time.

So, short of putting real legal restrictions on these companies, it’s really up to platforms like Apple and Android. But the problem is that Apple really has no incentive to be more intrusive to its developers. They are Apple’s lifeblood. iOS would truthfully be a shell of what it is without them. Your iPhone would be your home screen and that’s it. I’ve already talked to a few develops annoyed at their dealings with the app store, particularly around waiting for approval for their apps.

But it wouldn’t be the first time Apple aligned itself with another agenda. New iPods ship with a “Don’t steal music” sticker on them in four different languages. The company has been doing this since the earliest models of the device. Of course, the message was intended to serve Apple by seeking to pacify spooked record companies weary of the Internet’s power to pilfer their music.

Still, Harris’ guidelines all seem very reasonable – as long as they remain guidelines. It's of note to mention that Harris is in office because in 2010 she beat out Chris Kelly, Facebook's former chief privacy officer. So in a parallel universe, who knows what he could have done? Maybe given Facebook a free ride, or, conversely, nailed the privacy issues.

[Image via Imagine underwater photography]