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Paying the Price to Protect User Privacy

Internet companies know they need to invest in privacy, but they couldn’t have predicted that they’d go broke protecting it.

Earlier this week Yahoo pushed back hard against a recently passed Delaware law that requires Internet companies to turn over users’ emails to estate attorneys – even when those users wanted their emails deleted when they died.

Yahoo appears resigned to eat sizable fines rather than go against users’ wishes regarding the privacy of their mail and other accounts. It’s a noble stand, but one only necessitated by a truly bad law that unfortunately appears poised to go viral in several states next year.

The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of the stratospheric fines that Yahoo was incurring as it sought to prevent the U.S. Government from spying on its user base.

Those potential fines, which grew to quadrillions of dollars, demonstrate the immense coercive power that the government wields, and the importance of ensuring that it wields that power for the right reasons.

Which brings us back to the terribly misguided Delaware law and the impossible choice that it forces Internet companies to make between respecting their customers’ explicit privacy wishes and obeying the law.

For Yahoo, those wishes are actually codified in its contractually binding terms of service, making the decision that much more difficult.

“When an individual signs up for a Yahoo account, they agree to our terms of service, which outlines that neither their account nor the contents of their private communications are transferrable at the time of death,” Bill Ashworth, Senior Legal Director, Public Policy at Yahoo, wrote in a blog post on the topic.

We admire Yahoo’s principled stand, just as we admired it when they pushed back against unfettered government intrusion in their users’ accounts.

And Yahoo isn’t alone — today, dozens of businesses and trade associations sent a letter opposing government access to our stored communications. Hopefully governments will stop making such stands and letters necessary.

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