Friday, February 12, 2016

Let the lawsuits begin

We launched on Tuesday at the Data on Purpose conference. It was great.

One of the conversations I had during the event was initiated by someone asking me the question, "When will the lawsuits begin?"

The point was that organizations won't change until they really have to, so nonprofits won't start really digging into data governance practices and policies (what provides) until they're  legally required to do so. Lawsuits that lead to regulatory or legislative change, this person was suggesting, are a step toward the same type of organizational behavior change we're trying to support with digitalIMPACT.

History bears out this "theory of change."

Bad behavior, lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit, regulatory change is a plot line (or subplot) through a great deal of social and political history. Environmental protection. Civil rights. Gun laws. Campaign funding. And, yes, the protection of civil liberties online.

Tonight, I was catching up on email and half-watching the news when I heard this sentence from the professionally-alarmed local newscaster:
"Big news for parents. Your child's private data is likely on its way to a nonprofit advocacy group."
Needless to say, I gave the TV my undivided attention.

A nonprofit that advocates for special education has sued California school districts as part of their efforts to make sure kids are getting appropriate services. The school districts are (allegedly) sending electronic files of all students with names, addresses, and social security numbers to the organization. The news story went on to describe the privacy risks for children's data and point viewers (parents) to an opt-out process.

How long will it be until there is a countersuit?

Now we have an answer to Tuesday's questions. Lawsuits between nonprofits and public agencies about data have begun. Give it a minute and it will be the nonprofits getting sued. (Of course, lawsuits over digital data started years ago, at least as early as 1990, when EFF was founded).

Legal challenges for regulatory change are a tried and true means of changing policy. They are not the only way. There are things nonprofits and foundations can do to treat digital data with integrity and respect, and perhaps avoid litigation.  Check out

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