ACLU office in Washington, D.C. at the Peter B. Lewis Center for Civil Liberties. November 11, 2014. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Silicon Valley technology startup accelerator Y Combinator (YC) recently admitted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to its winter fellow class. The 97-year-old civil liberties group is now a legal tech startup, following a massive $24 million fundraising round over one weekend in response to President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order banning entry of nationals from seven countries.

ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said that since Trump was elected last November, the ACLU’s membership has more than doubled, putting new strains on the organization to manage, fundraise and communicate with its new member base.

“We’re moving to a new constituent relationship management database, so we’re just in the process of migrating data and building out functionality in our salesforce platform,” Romero said of the ACLU’s current member-management technology. “There are a lot of questions and a lot of bumps in the road as we move from an old system to a 21st century [customer relationship management system].”

Romero said the nonprofit is hoping to work with YC on a few different tech projects, but is still reviewing their needs. The accelerator has pledged to donate tech development services to the ACLU as part of its fellowship program, along with the mentorship and networking opportunities for which the accelerator is best known. The ACLU is slated to participate in the accelerator’s famed “Demo Day” in March, where startups typically present the product they plan to introduce to market.


The accelerator, however, will make a few special accommodations for the ACLU: Unlike other startups, the ACLU will not spend time in residence in Silicon Valley, nor will the accelerator take any equity stake or payment from the civil liberties nonprofit for its participation in the program.

Romero said that YC will donate $200,000 to the ACLU—$80,000 more than its typical startup fellow investment—to the civil liberties nonprofit to “assist the ACLU with its technology platforms and adapt to its growing membership base,” but will not take any funds from the civil liberties nonprofit for its participation in the accelerator program.

While startups typically develop the technology behind their own projects during their time in YC’s fellowship, the accelerator has asked its network of developers and tech staffers to contribute time to ACLU projects. Shortly after the tech incubator announced the partnership, it put out a call for engineers to donate hours to working on projects for the ACLU. Romero said that YC president Sam Altman told him the accelerator was “overwhelmed with offers for volunteers” to design and develop technology for ACLU projects.

“The ACLU has always been important, but has a particularly important role right now,” Altman wrote in a statement announcing the partnership. The statement linked to a blogpost by Romero describing the ACLU’s challenges to Trump’s executive order on immigration. “We will send some of our team to New York for the rest of the batch to assist.”

Romero said that the ACLU has been similarly overwhelmed by volunteer attorneys hoping to help the ACLU since the election. “We’ve been inundated with hundreds if not thousands of lawyers who’ve offered their volunteer pro bono services,” he said.

TechCrunch reported that the partnership arose from YC partner Kat Manalac’s outreach to the ACLU as part of the accelerator’s call to recruit startups to “improve democracy.” The call prompted Romero to ask YC for help with an unnamed project, after which the organizations together decided the ACLU would be formally affiliated with the YC accelerator.

This isn’t YC’s first foray into the nonprofit world. The accelerator started sponsoring nonprofit organizations in 2013 with medical treatment funding platform Watsi, and has since invited nonprofit organizations to apply for its fellowships. The accelerator has, however, been slow to sponsor legal organizations throughout its tenure. The accelerator has only funded 11 legal tech startups to date out of its 1,464-startup portfolio. Altman told Above the Law last year that “legal is an area that YC really likes.”

The announcement about the partnership was met with some skepticism regarding YC part-time partner and mentor Peter Thiel, who Romero referred to as a “well-known supporter of President Trump” in his statement. Altman has said that the tech incubator will not be cutting ties with Thiel over his support for Trump, and Romero’s statement indicated that Thiel will have no role in the ACLU’s projects.

Romero said that the ACLU is still “putting together our wish list” for projects that YC affiliates could help develop, but he named a few potential ideas the ACLU is hoping to explore.

At present, the ACLU offers mobile apps in at least 17 states offering localized information about individual rights during a police encounter and allowing users to record and upload police encounters to their local ACLU affiliate, but Romero is hoping that the partnership will help the organization build an app with national scope.

“We want to develop an app for all the states across the country, and then develop a nationwide platform, and then connect the video and the user experience back to the ACLU,” he said.

Also high on the list for ACLU development is a peer-to-peer fundraising platform to do targeted advertising, but with an eye to the standards of online privacy it advocates for on behalf of consumers. The organization’s website features a section on “Consumer Privacy” featuring reports and press statements from the organization about private-sector use of consumer data.

“We’ve worked very hard to have it in plain language that we believe people have a right to privacy and their personal information on the web, and there are all sorts of tools where even research mechanisms that we don’t employ because we think they’re privacy-invasive,” Romero said, adding that targeted advertising is an area that routinely raises privacy red flags for the ACLU.

“We want to use the technology tools that exist, but we also want to defend and protect the privacy rights of our members and so sometimes the products that are on the shelf are not as privacy protected as we’d like them to be,” he later added.

Romero hopes that developing these tools to use internally can help the organization advocate for consumer privacy rights by creating alternative advertising technology. “Maybe we can add functionality to the tech world in a way that doesn’t currently exist,” Romero said.

The organization is also looking to try to bring some of its other tech infrastructure and training up to speed. “We’re not as sophisticated as we’d like to be in terms of segmentation, in terms of really understanding how to use some of the tools,” Romero.

As for any potential attorney-facing technology, Romero said that the ACLU is fairly comfortable with its internal technology, and is less likely to see updates as a part of the organization’s partnership with Y Combinator. He noted that the ACLU’s case management and document review platforms are well-received by staff attorneys.

“Our needs are not unlike the needs at a private law firm in terms of the privacy and the need for client confidentiality, but we may find that there are things we’d like to do better,” he said.

Follow Gabrielle Orum Hernández on Twitter: @GMOrumhernandez.

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