How the NTIA convened a multi-stakeholder group to draft a mobile app transparency Code of Conduct

By: Karen Zacharia

Even in Washington, amazing things can happen when people gather in a room to work things out.  It really is possible for public advocates – including the ACLU, the World Privacy Forum, and Consumer Action – to reach agreement with trade associations and industry.  How did this happen?

Privacy buffs may recall that in February 2012 the Administration released a white paper on consumer data privacy in the online world.  The paper proposed a “consumer privacy bill of rights” that consisted of seven principles designed to give consumers a clear idea of what they should expect from those who handle their personal information, and set expectations for companies that use personal data.  To implement these principles, the paper proposed legislation that would establish the principles in law.  But the paper acknowledged that information technologies and services were changing rapidly – at a pace legislation cannot match – and proposed the use of a multi-stakeholder process to implement the principles. 

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) quarterbacked the effort.  After soliciting input from the diverse array of advocacy groups, companies, and associations who comprised the stakeholder community, transparency for mobile apps was chosen as the first topic on which to craft a voluntary code of conduct.  Stakeholders convened in plenary and small groups to solve for how to best provide consumers with more visibility into how their data is used when mobile apps are downloaded and accessed. And on July 25th, 2013 the stakeholders reached consensus to move to user testing of the code of conduct that stakeholders crafted. 

Multi-stakeholder models of governance have been crucial to the Internet’s evolution and ability to change to meet the needs of consumers while allowing for innovation. Strengthening these models globally has been a major goal as Internet access has expanded around the world. As the White House paper noted, “A key goal of the multi-stakeholder process is to enable stakeholders to modify privacy protections in response to rapid changes in technology, consumer expectations, and market conditions, to assure they sufficiently protect consumer data privacy.”  The nimbleness of the multi-stakeholder process also encourages innovations that will bring more consumer-friendly technologies to market quickly. 

“While initially app developers, industry groups and advocates were substantially far apart in their approaches to mobile app transparency, the current code reflects a flexible approach to communicating data collection and sharing practices to consumers, while also providing substantial grounds for enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission,” the Center for Democracy and Technology said of the process.

Verizon commends NTIA for bringing a broad stakeholder community together and facilitating a process that can foster consensus.  The multi-stakeholder process gives consumers more visibility into how their data is used, allows companies to compete and innovate, and implements the Consumer Bill of Rights. It’s a "seminal milestone" as NTIA has said, and it's also an encouraging success story for those engaged in multi-stakeholder processes elsewhere. This is a win-win solution for the digital ecosystem.

Karen Zacharia is Verizon's Chief Privacy Officer