WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A high-tech Wild West where location data, including some gleaned from teenagers' mobile devices, is scooped up and sold without consumers' consent needs to end, lawmakers told a panel of tech companies on Thursday.
While lawmakers noted extraordinary technical innovation by Apple Inc, Google Inc, Facebook and others in Silicon Valley, they also showed irritation at data collection and sale without consent. Much of the ire was aimed at smartphone applications and the collection of teenagers' data.
"A teenager accessing an application may not realize that her address book is being accessed and shared with a third party. That is not meant to happen in this country without the permission of an adult," said Senator John Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce Committee.
Twenty percent of children aged 11 or younger had a cell phone in 2009 while 66 percent had one by age 14, and just under 75 percent of high schoolers have one, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report.
The revelation last month that Apple's iPhones collected location data and stored it for up to a year -- even when location software was supposedly turned off -- has prompted renewed scrutiny of the nexus between location and privacy.
Google, which has had privacy battles of its own with controversy over Buzz and Street View among others, has been dragged in because it provides the guts of the Android phones.
But Google's Alan Davidson warned lawmakers against focusing on headline issues and said they should instead hone in on establishing principles. "Otherwise, this committee and others will be returning term after term to address the latest new technology fad," he warned.
Senator Pat Toomey, the ranking Republican on the Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Internet subcommittee, noted that he was the father of two young children and was "very concerned," while adding: "As a general matter, I prefer to see the market self-regulate."
Rockefeller also pressed Facebook, which says it bars children under age 13 from the website, to explain why 7.5 million children aged 12 or less have accounts.
Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor said it only shuts down the accounts of children when someone else reports that a child is on the website. Children 12 and under get special privacy protection by law, which means that many web sites prefer not to cater to them.
Apple also said that it bars children under age 13 from its iTunes store and does not sell apps that target minors for data collection. "If we learn that we have inadvertently received the personal information of a child under 13, we take immediate steps to delete that information," said Apple's Catherine Novelli.
Democratic Senator John Kerry called for changes to "modernize our privacy laws."
"We want ... legislation to work for both the consumer and entrepreneur. I reject the notion ... that privacy protection is the enemy of innovation. It absolutely doesn't have to be," said Kerry, who has introduced a privacy bill with Republican Senator John McCain.
In addition to the Rockefeller and the Kerry-McCain bill, there are online privacy bills introduced in the House of Representatives by Representatives Bobby Rush and Jackie Speier. Representatives Ed Markey and Joe Barton are mulling an update to the children's online privacy protection laws. It is too early to tell whether any will become law.
Reporting by Diane Bartz, editing by Gerald E. McCormick