ACLU Guide: Tips for companies on protecting user privacy and free speech in 2013

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By Nicole A. Ozer 

Last year was jam-packed with stories of companies making costly mistakes on user privacy and free speech. To help companies get a fresh start in 2013, the ACLU of California has just released the new edition of Privacy and Free Speech: It’s Good for Business.

This primer (and companion website) is a practical, how-to guide illustrating how businesses can build privacy and free speech protections into their products and services – and what can happen if they don’t.

The guide features dozens of real-life case studies from A(mazon) to Z(ynga) and updated recommendations for policies and practices to take the guesswork out of avoiding expensive lawsuits, government investigations, and public relations nightmares. It walks companies through essential questions and lays out steps to spot potential privacy and free speech issues in products and business models and address these issues head-on.

No company wants to get insta-hate for poorly thought-out policy decisions, lose tens of thousands of domain customers like Go-Daddy, or get hit like Google with a $22.5 million dollar fine by the Federal Trade Commission. It’s far better to be on the flip side, garnering praise like small search engine DuckDuckGo for having strong privacy practices or Twitter for safeguarding the free speech of users. The tips in the ACLU guide can help companies start 2013 off right, avoid preventable mistakes, and build customer loyalty.

Five things companies can do to protect user privacy and free speech:

  • Respect your data.
    Companies should carefully evaluate the costs of collecting and retaining data to avoid the fallout, lawsuits, and government fines that Path suffered for silently uploading users’ contacts.
  • Stand up for your users’ rights.
    Companies can earn public praise and user trust for protecting user privacy rights like Amazon or for supporting free speech like Facebook.
  • Plan ahead.
    Incorporate privacy and security from start to finish, and evaluate these practices as the company grows.
  • Be Transparent.
    Give users the ability to make informed choices by letting them know what data you collect, and how it can be used, shared, or demanded by the government. Transparency reports like Google’s are important tools.
  • Encourage users to speak freely.
    Give users control over the content they access and the tools they use rather than censoring content like PayPal.

Baking in strong privacy and free speech protections isn’t just the right thing to do – dozens of recent controversies highlight just how important it is for business too. By learning from other companies’ mistakes and building on their privacy and free speech successes, businesses can hopefully make 2013 a profitable and privacy and free speech-friendly year for everyone.

View the primer online at aclunc.org/business/primer or download a pdf copy.

Nicole Ozer is the Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director for the ACLU of Northern California.

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