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INVENTING

Do You Have a Privacy Problem?

Google, Facebook, and others have made consumers particularly sensitive about their privacy online. That means you need to be sensitive about it too.

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Big tech companies are no strangers to privacy problems.

Google is reportedly in line for even more scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission. The existing probe started after competitors complained that the company manipulated search results to promote its own products and services. Now, according to an unnamed source, the FTC will also look at Google's plans to increasingly incorporate posts and photos from its Google+ social network in search results. Critics say that it makes personal data of users more available, which undermines privacy.

It's tough for a large technology or media company to do anything without complaints of alleged privacy invasion. Such companies as Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and Microsoft have no one to blame but themselves. After all, the online marketing industry has known for years that it was skating on thin ice, but went ahead as it wished anyway.

Unfortunately, these companies have created an atmosphere that every business has to live with because many consumers are now suspicious and cynical, and not just of Internet-based businesses. Here are some steps to take to help build trust and keep anyone — including a devious competitor — from directing government attention your way:

  • Understand the problem — Before you can intelligently deal with an issue, you have to understand it. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Electronic Privacy Information Center have resources describing both privacy issues and relevant regulations. A little research can go a long way.
  • Create a privacy policy — Whether your business operates online or not, a privacy policy is a smart move. It makes you think through the issues and how to handle data. A policy can also provide a greater sense of trust and security to customers.
  • Build the business processes — A policy is all well and good, but plenty of companies have made statements and plans only to see them fall apart because there was no follow through. Creating a privacy policy will actually do more damage if you don't follow through. Strong processes don't guarantee that a problem will never happen, but they can minimize the possibility.

The final step is to let customers know what you are doing and why. By taking concrete actions that they can understand, you're telling those customers that you have the right regard for them and their welfare. And that just happens to be a great differentiator and additional barrier to competitors that might want to lure them away.

Last updated: Jan 17, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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