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Apple and Google wriggle on US Senate hot seat

Hearing on privacy, patents, iPhones, drunks

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After Davidson told him that the cock-up was unintentional and that the company was "working with regulators around the world to figure out what to do with [the collected data] and in many cases we've destroyed it," Blumenthal asked: "Why would the company then submit a patent application for the process – that very process that it denies having used?"

Davidson, to put it kindly, wriggled. "I'm sorry I can't speak to the specifics of this very patent. We were not aware that this was a topic for today's hearing. But I will say that generally we submit patent applications for many, many different things. Often they are fairly speculative. We probably do – I don't know – hundreds of patent applications a year. Certainly scores. And it would not be surprising at all that in this area that is so important, we would be looking for innovative ways to provide location based services."

Davidson then got back to his original Street View theme. "As we have said publicly, it was a mistake, and we certainly never attempted to collect payload information."

Both Davidson and Tribble also received a bit of a surprise when Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) began his questioning by saying: "I want to ask about a slightly different aspect of balancing technology with public safety, and that is the smartphone applications that enable drunk driving."

Schumer went on to describe applications such as Fuzz Alert Pro, Checkpointer, and Tipsy which are designed, as he put it, to "endanger public safety by allowing drunk drivers to avoid police checkpoints."

Schumer reminded Davidson and Tribble that he and three other senators had written to Apple, Google, and RIM, asking them to take down such apps. RIM complied, but Schumer said: "I was disappointed that Google and Apple haven't done the same, and I'd like to ask you how you can justify to sell apps that put the public at serious risk."

Davidson's response was that "we do try to maintain openness of applications" in the Android Marketplace, and that "applications that share information about sobriety checkpoints are not a violation of our content policy."

Schumer followed up by asking: "Would you allow an app that provided specific directions on how to cook methamphetamines?" Davidson responded by saying any evaluation would be "fairly fact-specific", but that "any applications that are unlawful or that [are] directly related to unlawful activity, I think we do take those down."

Having said that, however, Davidson said that Google would reevaluate its Marketplace policy to determine whether checkpoint-avoidance apps could be taken down.

Tribble personalized his answer to Schumer's direct questioning as to why Apple hasn't taken down checkpoint-avoidance apps. "As a physician who's worked in an emergency room I've seen firsthand the tragedy that can come about due to drunk driving," he said.

He then told Schumer that Apple is "carefully examining" the apps in question, and has discovered that some of them are "publishing data on when and where the checkpoints are that are published by the police departments," an argument that Schumer called "a weak reed."

Tribble said that it's sometimes difficult to determine an app's intent, but that if an app's intent is "to encourage people to break the law, then our policy is to pull them off the store."

Schumer asked Davidson and Tribble to get back to him in a month with a progress report on the status of checkpoint-avoidance apps, and in a later statement on his website said that the two companies had agreed to do so.

As he wrapped up the hearing – long after Schumer's exchange with Davidson and Tribble, and after more testimony, conversation, evasion, and grandstanding about digital privacy and related matters – Franken summed up by saying: "As I said at the beginning of this meeting, I think that people have the right to know who is getting their information and a right to decide how that information is shared and used."

However, he added, "After hearing today's testimony, I still have serious doubts if those rights are being respected in law or in practice."

And with the bang of a gavel Franken ended what was just the latest round in the eternal American back-and-forth between voluntary corporate compliance and government-enforced consumer-protection regulations, and between a business' legitimate desire for valuable information about their customers and an individual's arguably constitutional right to personal privacy. ®

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