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The Boston Globe

Business

FTC pushes protections for mobile browsing

WASHINGTON — In a strong move to protect the privacy of Americans as they use the Internet on their smartphones and tablets, the Federal Trade Commission on Friday said the mobile industry should include a do-not-track feature in software and apps, and take other steps to safeguard personal information.

The staff report, which was approved by the commission, is nonbinding but is an indication of how seriously the agency is focused on mobile privacy. As if to emphasize that, the commission separately fined Path, a social networking app, $800,000. It charged the company with violating federal privacy protections for children by collecting personal information on underage users, including ­almost everyone in users’ address books.

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Together the actions represent the government’s heightened scrutiny of mobile devices, which for many Americans have become the primary way of accessing the Internet.

‘‘We’ve been looking at privacy issues for decades,’’ said Jon Leibowitz, the FTC chairman. ‘‘But this is necessary because so much commerce is moving to mobile, and many of the rules and practices in the mobile space are sort of like the Wild West.’’

The report lays out a clear picture of what sort of activities might bring a company under investigation — like, for example, conveying the impression that an app will gather geolocation data one time, when it does so repeatedly.

For companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and BlackBerry, the suggestions essentially carry the weight of policy.

But the FTC also has its sights on small businesses that create apps for smartphones.

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Morgan Reed, executive ­director of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group representing app developers, said that the group generally supported the FTC report but that it had concerns about what he called ‘‘unintended consequences.’’

If app stores are worried about their liability over whether they have adequately checked the privacy protections of a mobile app they sell, they might not screen for privacy at all, he said.

The recommendations follow a similar set of guidelines issued last month by the California attorney general.

The FTC and the Obama administration last year issued separate sets of recommendations about how to safeguard consumers’ online privacy, and the subject has attracted growing concern in Congress.

But most of the focus has been on browsers commonly used at home but not on cellphones. Do-not-track features let users request that their online footsteps not be followed .

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