Reasonably practicable compliance with POPI is not enough

When considering how much you should do to comply with legislation like the Protection of Personal Information Act, you have three choices:

  1. Do as little as possible and see what you can get away with;
  2. Calculate the degree of “reasonably practicable” compliance required and stick with that;
  3. Adopt a more holistic approach to compliance.

Of the three options, the first is clearly a recipe for disaster. The only questions are when disaster will strike and how devastating will it be?

The second option is a popular one. To begin with, it is a practical solution because it takes into account what the law requires of you in order to meet the law’s standard so you limit your potentially significant investment in a compliance program without a corresponding quantitative benefit. Makes sense, right? In a way, yes, but what it doesn’t take into account is that your primary compliance risk is increasingly not regulators (at least not in South Africa where regulators often lack the capacity to respond very quickly), but rather the people who are directly affected by your decisions.

In other words, complying with laws like the Consumer Protection Act and Protection of Personal Information Act is not a quantitative exercise where you empirically (or as close to empirically as a legal compliance assessment can be) calculate your desired degree of compliance and work to that standard. Instead compliance is qualitative.

John Giles published a terrific post on the Michalsons blog titled “Only do what is reasonably practicable to comply with POPI” in which he explains POPI’s baseline compliance standard which is based on reasonableness and how this translates into what is likely an effective quantitative approach to compliance. It is worth saving the article because it is a handy reference for when you need to understand what the law means by “reasonably practicable”.

I don’t believe that this is enough, though. If anything, the question of what is reasonably practicable should only be part of your assessment of what you should do. The next, and arguably more important, question should be “What should we do to ensure not only compliance with the law but also to earn our customers’ trust?”. No, I’m not suggesting you drink the “rainbows and unicorns” energy drink and incur real money complying with some nebulous standard because your customers will like you more. Well, not entirely. What I am suggesting is that there is another dimension to compliance with legislation that affects people in very personal ways.

When you look at recent privacy controversies involving services like Facebook, Google and SnapChat, one theme that emerges from each of these controversies is not that these companies handled users’ personal information in ways they necessarily concealed from users. Their privacy policies describe what they do with users’ personal information in varying degrees. What really upsets users is that they weren’t expecting these companies to do the things they did because users tend to develop a set of expectations of what to expect from their providers which is typically not informed by privacy policies (because few people read them). These expectations are informed by what these companies tell them in marketing campaigns, what other users and the media tell them, what their friends share with them and their experiences with the services themselves.

When a provider steps outside its users’ collective expectations, mobs form and there is chaos in the metaphorical streets. The fact that these companies stuck to their published privacy policies and terms and conditions is largely irrelevant because users are not wholly rational and analytical. They don’t go back to the legal documents, read them quietly and go back to their daily lives when they realise that they mis-read or misunderstood the legal terms and conditions. No, they are outraged because the companies violated the trust users placed in these companies based on users’ expectations.

You may not have the same number of customers as Facebook, Google or SnapChat and your business may be different but if you are considering Protection of Personal Information Act or Consumer Protection Act compliance, you are dealing with the same people: consumers who have expectations and perceptions which you influence but certainly don’t control. If you violate the trust they place in you, the response will be swift and the consequences from a reputational perspective could be severe.

Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati Is a Public Square That Works for the City and Its People in a Myriad of Ways: Tyler Davidson Fountain 05/1973

When you develop your compliance program, assess what is reasonably practicable and set that as your commercial baseline. Then, consider how transparent you can be with your customers about what you intend doing with their personal information?

I remember reading a discussion about partners cheating on each other and at one point in the article the writer said that cheating isn’t just about the act but also the thoughts that precede it. If you have thoughts about another person which you don’t want to share with your partner, that is probably a good indication you are contemplating something you shouldn’t be doing. Apply that to your compliance program and ask yourself if you are comfortable disclosing what you intend doing with your customers’ personal information to them? If you are, be transparent about it in your privacy statement/policy and in your communications with your customers.

If you don’t feel comfortable being transparent about how you intend using your customers’ personal information and, instead, intend hiding behind technical legal compliance with the law to justify your data use, you may be setting yourself up for a bitter divorce and a costly battle with your customers. By the time the regulators arrive to assess your compliance, the damage will already have been done and the reasonably practicable thing to do will be to pick up the pieces of your reputation (and possibly your business) and start earning your customers’ trust again.

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