More than any other entrepreneurs, web publishers are forced to walk a tightrope between their viewers' right to privacy and the need to transform their sites into viable profit centers.
Unfortunately, legislation and case law is lacking in the area of information privacy. The courts continue to be reluctant to take on the issue of online privacy, especially at the federal level.
At the same time, legislators are either unable or unwilling to enact laws governing the use of the most current online publishing strategies. The result is a murky legal environment in which web publishers are often left to exercise their best judgment when it comes to the privacy of consumers.
The lack of legal precedents and current legislation doesn't negate the need for web publishers to use their customers' personal information in a responsible manner. The payoff for responsibility is two-fold: (1) Future legislation could be applied retroactively to clearly egregious privacy violations, and (2) online users tend to reward publishers who use their information responsibly.
With new techniques and technologies emerging everyday, here are just a few of the ethical hotspots your Internet publishing strategy should address:
- Hyperlinking. Hyperlinking is an extremely common practice in web publishing. You post something on your site, possibly even material from another web publisher, with a hyperlink to the original site. No problem, right? Maybe not. Recent court cases have indicated that your hyperlink could violate the other publisher's trademark. If you aren't sure whether your hyperlinks are legitimate, either contact the original publisher or consult your attorney.
- Behavioral tracking. Many online marketers track the individual behavior of their users (e.g. sites visited, searches conducted, etc.), then use that information to create targeted online ads or perform other revenue-enhancing activities. Although laws related to behavioral tracking are scarce, the scales are starting to tip in the consumer's direction. We're not necessarily saying you shouldn't use behavioral tracking – just use it in a way that is ethical and professional.
- Data mining. Data mining leverages the massive amount of personal data that is available on the Internet to generate aggregate and individual information about consumers. Even though data mining is an extremely valuable online publishing tool, you need to take measures to protect your users from cyber-stalking, identity theft, and other negative outcomes. While the law may be on your side to publish public information or report aggregated information derived from many sources, it's a good idea to offer an opt out option for those who don't want their information displayed.
- Geolocation. Mobile technology has opened the door to a new web publishing feature: Geolocation. Many web publishers now use their viewers' current location to select the ads that appear on their screens. Although geolocation is here to stay, it's important to take measures to protect your users' location-based data from prying eyes.