Once again we made our yearly trek to DC to work with ACT on issues that affect our development community. This year we focused primarily on Mobile Privacy, STEM, H1-B Visas, Intellectual Property, Robust Networks. While our group is International, many of the issues covered were specific to US concerns. However Privacy and IP affect all of us. It was great to see so many people from our community. We had a strong presence this year.
Privacy – our big concern is obviously the new Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules going into effect July 1. There needs to be a balance between regulations that protect our children and creating rules that are so cumbersome they are too costly or create too large a legal burden for developers which results in stunting innovation and creativity and production of quality applications, especially in Ed tech.
STEM – Only 1 in 10 high schools offer computer science classes and there has been a 60% drop in comp sci AP test taken since 2000. With fewer opportunities for STEM American students are less likely to go into these areas in college and it means less qualified people to fill the technical jobs of tomorrow. STEM funding should be increased in primary and secondary schools too to help encourage children at an early age to engage in the sciences or we won’t have the resources we need to grow our companies because demand is going up even if the resources aren’t there.
H1-B Visas – While we would love to see STEM funding and programs solve our lack of talented industry resources, the reality is that is a longer term solution. Today while we struggle to fill positions with strong development resources we need to look outside our area and in many cases outside the country. H1-B visas however aren’t working for small companies. There are too few, process is too complicated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics we are expecting to produce 120,000 new jobs in computer science annually but only 40,000 qualified graduates. One argument against the H1-B visa is that there is a fear this will take jobs from Americans in the future. However right now there is a bi-partisan bill called I-Squared that attempts to expand the H1-B program giving employers more access to technical resources such as foreign students, trained in American schools and then sent home while at the same time increasing the fees for Visas and using them to fund STEM. This seems like a good compromise since it solves a short term shortage while investing more money in our kids and the next generation of American employees. Let’s face it STEM education is the only long-term solution that makes sense right now because while we may be be able to expand the visa program it is still complicated and large companies will always have an advantage.
Intellectual Property – This is a complicated area. We all want patents to protect our intellectual property as this stimulates innovation. However Patent Trolls are creating chilling legal threats that makes it difficult for companies to invest in technology, never knowing if a patent troll will come out of the wood work, blindly threatening anyone knowing the legal fees will force them to settle. There is a bill passing through the house (HR 845) called the SHIELD act that while not perfect will allow defendants to recoup money spent to successfully defend themselves against junk lawsuits. There are other issues such as making patent ownership more transparent and encouraging stronger enforcement of existing anti-piracy laws.
Robust Networks – ACT has a much more sophisticated stance on spectrum. It involves the politics of bandwidth as well as the technology. However from our perspective it is simple. 50MB download limits by carriers/platforms limit the types of innovative apps we can do profitably. If you can only build apps that download on wi-fi there are certain apps people won’t get when they are on cell. Also this means that Universal apps are much more complicated (and potentially expensive) to develop if you want to download on cell networks as you need to download device specific content on the fly which also requires network connectivity just for your app to work. This also has the implication that you are forced to build cloud-based apps which means you have real costs for storage and bandwith. This could hurt the “free” market and make the pinch of piracy felt even more since pirates are using your network services (to download resources) and they didn’t pay for those services.
There were about 50 companies represented. We split up into groups and met with various Senators, Representatives and other officials. Some of us like Ann Adair went to the White House to meet with the science and technology team. Some of us went to meet with the FTC and other groups. I’ll just comment about the meetings I was in.
My first meeting was with Larry Zaragoza in Alcee Hastings (FL) office. He was attentive, and genuinely interested on how he could help us. He told of us how the Congressman is especially interested in how to bring more STEM education to his district. He was also impressed how ACT and our community were working to proactively address COPPA with parent zone and our versions of clearer privacy policies. We left the meeting with several action items. Dave Noderer of Computer Ways was from Florida and agreed to work with him to introduce the congressman to a computer literacy program he is involved with.
After the meeting Jonathan Godfrey of ACT showed us how during the House Commerce Committee hearing in October on the App Industry’s impact on job creation throughout the country he displayed a set of “baseball cards” highlighting apps from the districts of each of the people on the committee. It sounds like it was hit with the Congressmen. They started to refer to the people testifying by their app name!
My second meeting was with Eric Fins in Joe Kennedy’s (MA) office. He was also very receptive to our issues but seemed mostly focused on future bills the House are thinking about. He focused more on the idea of studies being done to show what is working and not working in education and how to apply successful programs across the country. This is a great idea but we stressed it didn’t help our immediate needs and he seemed to take note of this. Overall it was a positive meeting. At the end of it I mentioned my involvement with Learn Launch and he seemed interested in that too.
After this meeting we had some time to kill so Bob and I met up with Lynette in the Senate Dining room. It was pretty hot in DC and all that running around in suits had left me pretty uncomfortable so it was nice to sit down and enjoy some friendly conversation. I remembered the night before that Sara Kloek of ACT had mentioned when she worked as a staffer she was used to meeting with very sweaty people. It made me think DC is a strange mix of the immensely serious and the incredibly gross. Everyone wears suits because of the solemn respect they have for the institutions and the representatives but really shorts and t-shirts would have been a lot more practical attire!
After lunch Bob and I headed to our next meeting with Julie Babayan in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (MA) office. While we were waiting the Senator stopped by and said hello as she was rushing out the door. Julie met us and we went to talk in the hall as they are preparing to move to a another office soon and didn’t have room for us. This is common in a lot of these meetings. We had more people at this meeting so it took a little longer to do introductions. Ultimately we got to our issues and Julie asked some great questions. I felt we educated her somewhat on our concerns especially on privacy which is good because apparently she is focused on that issue. She felt our meetings with the FTC would be helpful and she was right.
Our next meeting was at the FTC with Commissioner Brill. She is one of the key drivers of the implementation of COPPA in the FTC. When we got to the office the Commissioner took us on a tour of the beautiful view of the city below from the balcony. Then we got down to business.
It’s important to realize that the FTC did not create COPPA, they are trying to interpret and implement it. For this reason they struggle with many of the same problems we do. They are trying to interpret the will of Congress and create ways to reasonably execute it.
The general philosophy seems to be that as long as you are clear and transparent and get parental consent you can do pretty much anything within reason in a children’s app. The problem is that getting parental consent is complicated and time-consuming and simply giving parents a big legal document to accept is not their intent. They want clarity and transparency. Besides, on a mobile device where a two-minute interaction with an app is typical, having a parent jump out of the app to do a parental consent process is difficult to believe will work.
Another issue is that technology keeps changing so any restriction that regulates process too tightly may stifle innovation and create unwanted results. Said another way, the FTC views themselves as consumer advocates (enforcers) and yet if they create rules that are unclear then they will stifle the innovation that benefits consumers. Because the FTC still has questions on how we developers solve some of our problems they leave doubt that makes it harder for us to invest in new strategies. How do you risk an approach not explicitly covered knowing a lawsuit may be the only way to determine if your approach is valid? One suggestion from the FTC is to engage them in conversation early on when you have a new idea and they will try to work with you but that doesn’t guarantee a definitive answer in all cases, but it could result in guidance.
What is clear is the FTC absolutely wants to work with us on finding creative ways to balance the need to protect children’s privacy with our need to thrive and innovate. We exposed the Commissioner to the attempts we are making to proactively address privacy by implementing clearer policies, developer education and resources and innovative ways to work with parents too.
This led to another discussion on a recent action the FTC took. In preparation for the July first COPPA rules the FTC identified about 90 apps that they felt “may” not be COPPA-compliant and let those developers know. Now, they viewed the letter as an effective way to let people know they should get ready for July 1. However several of our community members panicked when they got the letters. So we voiced our concern of how they were notifying the community.
We explained we have a large community of developers that are struggling to succeed which means creating jobs, creating learning tools and entertainment. When we get a letter on FTC letterhead written in legal language it is taken as a significant threat to a small developer’s business, especially when they have tried to do the right things all along to the best of their knowledge. So instead of having the intended effect of letting developers know the FTC wanted them to prepare, it caused them to worry they had done something very wrong and may need a lawyer or to drop their app. What I don’t think the commissioner appreciated is that removing your app from the store while you address the issues that weren’t issues before July 1 means losing traction and placement in the rankings. This could kill an app’s chance of success.
Say this app helps children become better readers. Then dropping the app because it is too costly to fix or there is a fear of legal costs then the result hurts children and parents more than the infringement. In this example the consumer loses by enforcing the law. This may be a real scenario for many niche apps, especially in the special needs area where tracking is even required by schools but perhaps they haven’t had time or resources to update their app yet. So I think we should view our role to show that there is gray area and more importantly that we want to find ways to bridge this gap by educating our community, innovating on parental consent and transparency and also use our technical and business knowledge to help educate the government on the edge cases that are significant enough to perhaps require special consideration.
The main message we left the Commissioner with was that we respect what the FTC is trying to do and want to work with them so that we can educate our community on their responsibility and take proactive measures so stricter regulations are not necessary. Bottom line, we see our community of developer and parents on the same side of the table – trying to help protect consumers while trying to innovate and fill niches that larger companies may not satisfy.
After this meeting we met with the entire COPPA team at the FTC. I got there late because we had an injury in our group. I also managed to avoid getting arrested. Apparently taking pictures in a Federal building is not allowed. Oops!
When we got to the meeting which Sara was running they had already covered many of the issues that we have been working on including the Parent Zone, the new MomsWithApps enhancements and our work on privacy policies. We had Betsy, a speech therapist demonstrate how she is using iPads to help children with special needs overcome their issues with software developed by developers like us. Software that tracks progress and is affected by COPPA.
Then we jumped right in with our concerns about the letter. It got slightly contentious at times as we were very honest with them and they were with us. When the dust settled a few things were clear to me:
- These are serious people doing a tough job
- They want to work with us
- They encourage individual developers to call them with any concerns or questions on how to implement COPPA
- If you have ideas on how to innovate on their ideas of parental consent or any other aspect of COPPA they want to consider it and if they approve it, add it to their list
- They realize they don’t have all the answers and are very open to feedback
- We will have solid and ongoing relationship with them
- Our activities have the ability to affect policy – I must admit here, more than anywhere else I felt we can make a difference.
I also learned that right now it looks like Google Play is most likely NOT COPPA-compliant because it sends contact information to the developers during purchases whether they want it or not and prior to parental consent.
One thing for our community to know – if you have concerns about your particular situation and are not comfortable reaching out to the FTC directly then please feel free to contact me or ACT directly and we can work on your behalf.
Overall I felt the meetings were productive and we learned a lot. We also had a tremendous opportunity to create more awareness of what we are doing as a community and what we need to thrive as small businesses. More than ever I am convinced that we are stronger when we speak with a collective voice. I want to thank the participants who were there with me and I’m truly pleased to meet them. I look forward to the great work we will do together over the next year.—
Contributed by Scott Weiner, a founding member of Moms With Apps and a partner at Blue Hills Partners and CTO/VPE of Blue River Associates consulting group and BrokerSuite, LLC. He also builds family-friendly apps with his children as owner of Weiner Family Studios and volunteers for various communities dedicated to children’s education and improving the technology and marketplace for app developers.