Ushering in Digital Corporate Social Responsibility

September 21, 2015
President and CEO, Center for Democracy and Technology


The CEO of Center for Democracy and Technology says the benefits of data must not come at the expense of privacy.

This essay is part of a series of articles relating to the Internet of Everything project. Read more at


By Nuala O'Connor

Transparency, openness, and honesty are traits that have always served the business community well. In today’s always-on, hyper-connected world, as companies have more and more data about their customers, these traits become even more important. As we continue to see the further emergence of the Internet of Everything, the companies that thrive will be the ones that both realize this responsibility and recognize that we are actually talking about personal information describing the lives of individuals.

Without question, technology empowered by rich data will continue to drive innovation and help us tackle society’s major challenges. Yet, these clear benefits must not come at the cost of our privacy.

Companies should view protecting their customers’ personal information as their digital corporate social responsibility (CSR). As with all CSR efforts, this is good for society and good for business.

So what does digital CSR truly mean? It requires companies to respect consumers’ digital dignity and to treat data as though it has a context—its customers’ lives. Businesses should be fully aware of the physical environment, the human interface and—most importantly—the very society that is being created. They should make respectful choices about the data that is collected both directly and indirectly.

Especially when it comes to big companies with wide swaths of personal data, there is an impact on human life. Whether it is data on the employees and others who come into contact with the connected devices, or those whose activities are monitored by the devices, the data is personal and must be protected. The potential for misuse of data will always be there, especially as it becomes a more sought-after and valued commodity. Thoughtful leaders will ask not only, “Can we?” when it comes to technology and data, but also, “Should we?”

To that end, to practice digital CSR, businesses should first be forthright and transparent about the data they collect, how that data is used, and with which third parties it is shared. This is the foundation for trust in the digital age. Beyond transparency, companies should also be sure to delete data they don’t need and refrain from collecting personal information that is not necessary to the bottom line. Finally, they should ensure that strong security measures are in place to protect data and their networks. These include simple methods, such as establishing firewalls, promoting encryption internally, and assisting employees with avoiding cybersecurity attacks, such as phishing.

When consumers clearly know the deal they are being offered and trust that a company will protect any personal information they share, we get much closer to a world that is enhanced by data. Without this level of trust or transparency, we run the risk of creating a data-driven world that respects neither our privacy nor our dignity. But both are still important in the digital age; our digital selves are extensions of our physical selves. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for businesses in all sectors. By practicing good digital CSR, businesses can set a trend and shape a digital future that we all want to live in. 

Nuala O’Connor is President & CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.





The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or their affiliates.