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The Digital Self: ‘Demand Privacy’ should be the new ‘Buy American’

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Since the 1930s, Americans of all stripes have taken pride in joining the “Buy American” movement: the commitment to only purchase goods made exclusively here in the United States. Due to the complicating economic and cultural shifts caused by globalization, however, Buy American has dwindled in popularity, and become a cliche latched to the ankles of xenophobes. But despite this downturn, the Buy American concept remains as salient as ever thanks to its simple ideal: Only support companies that support us.

It’s time for technology consumers to adopt the basic premise of Buy American, and bring it into the digital age. One good place to start: Privacy and free speech – only support companies that are committed to protecting the personal information of their customers, and their rights to speak out.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union released a guide to help businesses achieve this goal. Called Privacy & Free Speech: It’s Good for Business, the plan urges companies to make privacy and free speech a central selling point of their business.

“Your users are your greatest asset, whether you are selling products, advertising, or data,” reads the guide’s overview. “Meeting and even exceeding your users’ privacy and free speech expectations can build trust and deepen their relationship with your company and products, while falling short can drive users away and threaten the viability of your enterprise.”

In addition to providing a wealth of case studies and other resources for businesses, the ACLU’s Privacy & Free Speech guide lays out a complete “road map,” a checklist, that companies can follow to properly protect their users.

“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,” writes ACLU Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director Nicole Ozer. “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.”

While the ACLU’s guide is both an excellent resource for businesses and a great place to start a migration toward better respect for customers, the plan will fall flat if we don’t demand the respect ourselves. And that means being picky about the sites, services, and businesses we patronize.

At the moment, finding companies that meet the ACLU’s standards is perhaps more difficult than finding companies that shun foreign production. AT&T, Netflix, CitiBank, Facebook, and countless others get a “thumbs down” from the ACLU for failing to protect user privacy and free speech. But it’s not too late to change this.

As The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal reported last year, privacy has begun to make a comeback, especially among the younger crowd – a sentiment I’ve heard from an expanding variety of business professionals I’ve spoken with over the past few months. Even Microsoft, which flipped the bird to the online advertising industry by turing “Do Not Track” on by default in Internet Explorer 10, has at least partially jumped on the privacy bandwagon. So, people are finally beginning to catch on to the amount of personal data we’re releasing to the world, and how that data can be used both for and against us. We are, it seems, starting to care about privacy again in ways that haven’t existed since before Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard.

But caring alone only goes so far; we consumers must show the business world that disrespecting our rights to privacy, data protection, and free speech will result in money lost and companies failed. We must make “Demand Privacy” the “Buy American” battle cry of the Internet Generation, and prove that we cannot be taken advantage of nor ignored without serious repercussions.

So before you sign up for that new social network, or toss your signature on a new wireless service contract, check out the ACLU’s score card, search the news, and see where that particular company stands on privacy and free speech. If their track record doesn’t check out, don’t just move on – tell that company why you’ve decided to reject their business. Tell them you demand privacy, you demand control of your data, you demand a right to speak your mind – you demand respect. Tell them so they’ll know how to do a better job. And as a result, we’ll all be better off.

Updated with additional contextual information and links.

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