Inside 1to1:Privacy

At FTC Event, Experts Agree There's Work To Be Done On Mobile Privacy Disclosures

June 18, 2012

By Angelique Carson, CIPP/US

At the Federal Trade Commission one-day public workshop May 30, experts discussed online and mobile disclosures. The FTC is looking to update its last guidance on mobile privacy disclosures, released in 2000.

Moderated by FTC staff, panelists discussed such topics as how, when and where to make advertising disclosures to consumers, especially given the small screen sizes of mobile devices.  

A researcher on human computer interaction at University of California Berkeley, Jennifer King, opened a session on universal and cross-platform advertising disclosures by explaining the concept of user-centered design with a digital presentation based on a users' perceptions, expectations and needs. Because people are goal-oriented, King explained, when performing a task, they narrow their focus to only what's necessary to reach that goal. Such "selective attention" is important to keep in mind when considering advertising disclosures, King said.  

Additionally, users have been trained to scan a webpage for the most relevant information by reading it in an "F" shape pattern, King said, and so need a visual hierarchy to decipher meaning. Websites' disclosure models--generally lacking such hierarchies--aren't doing a sufficient job, she added, and stakeholders must realize that simply applying that model to smaller-screened mobile devices won't be effective. A more successful model may be that which was recently developed by Carnegie Mellon University doctoral candidate Patrick Kelley and colleagues. Kelley's disclosure resembles a nutrition label, effective for both its readability and "the distillation of the text into key points," King said.

During a panel discussion on cross-platform advertising disclosures, panelists largely agreed that putting disclosures behind hyperlinks is an acceptable disclosure method but agreed that material disclosures should be displayed more prominently.  

In a session on mobile advertising disclosures, the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Anna Bager noted the inherent struggles associated with small screens, not only because of the size but also because the user is often in a different mindset than when operating on a desktop or larger platform.  

"Consumer expectations are different on mobile phones," agreed Michelle De Mooy from Consumer Action. "It's a very personal product. Users are pretty unaware of the ecosystem that surrounds them, the marketing ecosystem. They tend to think of their phones as something that is not a website."

Though some panelists advocated against having a "check-the-box" disclosure method, De Mooy said no matter how advanced technology becomes, "it's still going to be pretty easy to check a box" and lauded its utility from a design standpoint.  

Jim Halpert, general counsel to the Internet Commerce Coalition, noted the importance of providing "proximite notice" when it comes to recurring or negative-action contracts. Notice should be placed "close to the point where the user is going to click to accept the arrangement of the disclosure, because that's a material term and there's potential class-action liability under state laws for failing to comply," Halpert said.  

Texas Assistant Attorney General Paul Singer said that from a regulator's standpoint, proximity is "still a very key concept to making sure consumers see and understand disclosures."

Noting its practicality for every device--regardless of size--the IAB's Bager said responsive design "solves a problem across many platforms."  

Panelists seemed to agree with De Mooy's comment that businesses today would be wise "to start with mobile and then head to the web. It makes more sense to design that way."  

In a session on mobile privacy disclosures, Create with Context, Inc. CEO Ilana Westerman presented research indicating consumers don't quite understand the extent to which companies are using their data and do care about transparency and having options on how their data is used. The research also found consumers don't want to be interrupted with disclosures and only want the disclosure at a point that they care, such as before they hit "buy," for example.  

As one solution, Westerman recommended the development of a trust icon for disclosures, a pull-down screen indicating to users that personal data is being sent and allowing them to click for more information.  

Jim Brock of PrivacyChoice said it's important to speak in a language that users can actually understand and warned that a privacy icon could be problematic because of the numerous iterations of privacy policies from company to company.  

"It's going to be hard to have icons that are not, in many cases, cryptic to the user," he said.  

The World Privacy Forum's Pam Dixon said she recommends companies use every medium available to reach consumers when it comes to disclosures, including e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. She said it's important to have robust disclosures and be creative with that robustness.  

"When you're researching something, after a notice is read the first time, it's toast," Dixon said, adding she recommends monthly disclosure reminders if necessary.  

Kevin Trilli of TRUSTe said the company is creating a short-notice privacy policy for mobile devices and apps.  

"How do you get a consumer to read a policy in three seconds?" he said, adding "consumers don't have time to decide more than three things."  

Westerman closed the panel by noting her research indicates there's more to be done when it comes to mobile disclosures.

"But that's because we're just getting started," she said.  

The FTC is expected to release a report on mobile and online privacy disclosures in the fall, and is accepting comments from the public through July 11.