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Don’t let internet privacy disputes harm communities of color

On May 25, 2018, the European Union began enforcing sweeping privacy regulations which impact the entire internet.

These regulations, the General Data Protection Regulations or GDPR, include fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue for those companies in violation of rules so difficult that the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, at least initially, chose to make their sites inaccessible in Europe rather than risk non-compliance. It is critically important we determine whether the European privacy laws or proposed U.S. laws threaten the thriving internet ecosystem of small and minority businesses not well positioned to endure overly burdensome regulations.

Following GDPR enforcement, Senate Democrats introduced a non-binding resolution asking tech companies to extend GDPR protections to American users. Although these are good faith efforts to protect the privacy of users, we need a balanced and thoughtful debate about privacy to avoid unintended consequences. If media giants had difficulty complying with GDPR, where does this leave minority and small businesses that don’t have the budget nor the compliance infrastructure to handle such a mandate? Data sharing has allowed small businesses to access sophisticated marketing and targeting tools once reserved for only the wealthiest businesses using traditional advertising platforms. Let’s not erode these gains.

Internet privacy disputes represent society’s latest struggle to find balance between innovation and appropriateness. For the foreseeable future, we will wrestle with questions on how data should be collected, shared and leveraged to reach potential customers. We should also be considering how data utilization impacts communities of color.

On the one hand, we have unprecedented opportunity to access information and reach the underrepresented. The potential to combat health disparities, to even the playing field in business, and to provide fingertip accessible information to billions is a positive advancement.  On the other hand, there are bad actors, mistakes, and unintended consequences that will, at times, justifiably slow progress.

In many ways, the internet has become a great equalizer. Entrepreneurs, activists and creators are now able to compete on world stages without traditional gatekeepers or capital needs preventing their market entry. As marketing has become more affordable and effective, smaller companies are able to be much more significant players in global markets. Tech platforms and templates have enabled these companies to create sophisticated ecommerce and marketing functions that were inaccessible to all but the wealthiest companies only a few years ago. It is critically important that minority entrepreneurs continue to encounter low barriers to market entry and success.

Political advertising is another area where data utilization and targeting is having a transformational effect in communities of color. Political advertising mediums now cost a fraction of the costs previously incurred by mailings and tv ads. In addition, the social media ecosystem, which thrives on the basis of data utilization, is now central to the capacity for communities of color to mobilize on social justice issues. There is no Black Lives Matter, Arab Spring, Dreamers or Dakota Access Pipeline movement as we know it without data driven social media platforms.

As the use of data expands exponentially, mistakes are inevitable. Communities of color will need to make sure they are protected in both innovation and in reactions to innovation. Obviously, no data sharing scheme should further disparities in financial services, criminal justice or employment. We must, as we innovate, ensure that every step into our future is deliberately accompanied by work to ensure we are more inclusive.

Any policies intended to protect privacy rights must not disrupt the delicate ecosystem that empowers communities of color to participate as full partners in the digital world. Communities of color are able to participate in the internet when the internet is inexpensive, independent, and universally accessible. Often, proposed solutions are directed at large companies without much sensitivity to the plight of smaller minority companies and consumers that have no access to expensive fixes. Any equation providing solutions must amply weight these communities.

Fortunately, we can enjoy the benefits of data while significantly mitigating potential harms.

Questions have to be asked and answered. Even in the ideal open and transparent process we must accept that no one has all of the answers. Embarrassing mistakes will be made. Information will be disclosed that should not be disclosed. Communities will be targeted or ignored with intention and bias.

The true measure of our collective success will be not be in our ability to avoid all mistakes but in our ability to recognize when one of us has fallen short and to quickly and impactfully correct the shortfalls. Maintaining privacy and security will be more journey than destination. It is important for all stakeholders to do their part to ensure our destination reflects all people.

Brian Woolfolk is executive director of Full Color Future, an organization committed to changing the narrative about people of color in media, tech and innovation. Brian served as Democratic counsel on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and advised committee members on the Telecommunications Act, media ownership diversity, and free speech issues. Prior to his committee work, Brian served as legislative counsel to Congressman Robert C. (Bobby) Scott of Virginia.