The “Privacy Tax” and other ethical expenses

Morals ain’t cheap — especially when they require engineering.

I love this read on the “Privacy Tax” from The Markup’s EIC Julia Angwin. She defines it as: “the time and money orgs spend building or customizing tools that would be off-the-shelf for other websites.” The Markup is deeply committed to user privacy, as well as user safety and accessibility. Over the last year, they built cookie- and tracking-free alternatives to products from Youtube, Stripe, Eventbrite, and others. Here are a few of their products and what they cost:

  • A video player that circumvents Youtube cookies (Privacy tax: ~$18K)
  • A donation platform with fraud detection and accessibility features for screen readers (User safety and inclusion tax: ~$18K)
  • An event RSVP product that doesn’t track users (Privacy tax: ~$12K)
  • An A/B testing tool that only tracks experimental content (like fundraising copy), and not users (Privacy tax: $600)
“Anti-troll toll” might be more fitting

All told, The Markup spent at least $57K on privacy-related projects, which doesn’t include strategizing, researching, and debating the merits of said projects — and displacing other engineering work. What’s great about this concept is that it allows you to quantify the time and effort spent on your principles. Ultimately, these expenses should be called investments, and not taxes. (But taxes are an easier concept to understand for bottom-line driven businesses.)

We take privacy fairly seriously at Crisis Text Line and have paid our share in privacy/safety/regulatory taxes, such as:

  • Building a scrubbing product so we can honor a user’s “right to be forgotten” —a product that automates data removal from dozens of database, while also maintaining data integrity
  • Meeting world-class GDPR+ standards, which is work that never ends when you operate in multiple countries. (The recent Schrems II decision, still being interpreted, will have product and data implications.)
  • Auditing our entire tech stack by multiple ethical AI firms, at great time and expense

Keep in mind that tech nonprofits have fractional budgets when compared to SV startups or the Big Tech firms; these taxes have a disproportionate opportunity cost for nonprofits that are disproportionately resource-constrained. As a tech leader, you’ve gotta make a lot of difficult trade-offs.

Even still, this work is crucial. Tech nonprofits are coding a better future that we’ll all want to live in. Here’s Angwin again on why it’s important:

It’s a lot of work, but we think it’s worth it—not just to protect our readers but also to show other websites that it can be done. We believe that our mission is not only to expose problems but also to find solutions—by building the world we want to live in, one tool at a time.