Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

If you Google the phrase “My friend is addicted to _______,” you do not get “opiod” (which is good). You get “phone.”

There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively. Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we’ve maintained a hands-off approach — so far.

Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their opt-in personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire online now haunt us for days.

We took a white-hat approach, jumping into the thick of it. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. We joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  When I saw our CEO recently, he reminded me, “We were so far ahead of our time.”

But if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.