[lg policy] US: Privacy Policies More Readable, But Still Hard to Understand

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Dec 31 16:06:07 UTC 2015

 Privacy Policies More Readable, But Still Hard to Understand

   - Elizabeth Dwoskin <http://topics.wsj.com/person/A/biography/7743>

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In 2012, researchers calculated it would take 25 days to read all the
densely worded privacy policies an average Internet user had agreed to.
Nearly four years later, some publishers of websites and apps are favoring
plain English over legalese – with mixed results.

Among others, Facebook
<http://www.wsj.com/public/quotes/main.html?type=djn&symbol=FB> Inc.FB
Fitbit <http://www.wsj.com/public/quotes/main.html?type=djn&symbol=FIT> Inc.
FIT +0.98%
Pinterest Inc., Reddit Inc., Spotify AB, and Samsung Electronics
<http://www.wsj.com/public/quotes/main.html?type=djn&symbol=005930.SE> Co.
005930.SE 0.00%
 have made efforts to present reader-friendly privacy policies. Some made
the changes proactively, others under pressure.

The effort to simplify privacy policy language is a response to public
suspicion of opaque policies and the collection of ever more data, said
Fatemeh Khatibloo, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst who studies privacy.
Some companies “are finally getting on board with the idea that privacy —
and how they use our data — is closely tied to trustworthiness,” she said.
In addition, they’re trying to write policies that will be viewed favorably
in Europe, which has set a higher bar than the U.S. for what counts as
consent to use personal data.

For instance, image bookmarking site Pinterest voluntarily revamped its
policy, telling users, “Because we’re an internet company, some of the
concepts below are a little technical, but we’ve tried our best to explain
things in a simple and clear way.”

The policy goes on to explain, “We may log how often people use two
different versions of a product, which can help us understand which version
is better.” This language describes a process known as A/B testing, seldom
made public, in which users are shown different versions a page or feature
to test its effectiveness.

However, the phrase “use two different versions of a product” is ambiguous,
given that Pinterest is a site where people buy consumer products and
presumably go on to use them.

Pinterest said its use of the word product was meant to cover a range of
its site’s attributes. “We typically A/B test new products–i.e., new visual
search–which include not only page design but new utility,” the company
wrote in an email.

“You go down a rabbit hole of explanation, but it’s still difficult to
explain how these things work,” said Joseph Turow, Robert Lewis Shayon
Professor of Communication at Annenberg School for Communication at the
University of Pennsylvania.

Anxiety over corporate use of personal information is running high, said
Lee Rainie, Director of Internet, Science, and Technology Research at the
Pew Research Center. However, it’s not clear whether more explicit privacy
policies make users more comfortable. “There isn’t a lot of evidence” that
people are changing their behavior or attitude toward technology companies
based on the rewritten policies, Rainie said. Complaints tend to die down
but flare up again in response to critical press reports and the like, he

A recent Pew study found that 38% of consumers are confused by privacy
policies, and more than half of users of mobile apps have elected at least
once not to download an app after discovering how much personal information
it would collect.

Facebook, which is perennially criticized for its confusing privacy
policies, introduced last year
cartoon Blue Dinosaur to help users conduct a “privacy checkup” and warn
them when they were about to distribute a status update beyond their friend
group. The feature may give users more control over what information they
reveal, but it also forces them to choose among a dizzying array of options
from who can see their cell phone number to whether their Facebook posts
appear in Google search results.

Spotify this year revamped its policy’s language to tell users that it
planned to collect their photos, contacts, and location. The policy
provoked a backlash among the music streaming service’s subscribers, who
demanded that the company explain why it needed such information. The
company overhauled the policy statement one month later, explaining what it
planned to do with each piece of data and apologizing for the
“understandable confusion” the earlier statement had created.

Samsung also got into hot water after its privacy policy informed users
that voice recognition software in a TV remote-control unit could relay
words spoken nearby. It rewrote its privacy policy and published ablog post
titled, “Samsung Smart TVs Do Not Monitor Living Room Conversations.”

Representatives of Facebook, Spotify and Samsung did not immediately
respond to a request for comment.

Rather than a detailed privacy policy for each company, Forrester’s Ms.
Khatibloo suggested a privacy scorecard that ranked many companies on a
variety of benchmarks. That way, consumers could see quickly how a given
company stacked up, she said.

Mike Yang, Pinterest’s general counsel and author of the company’s
latest policy updates, said that, as Pinterest’s business shifted toward
advertising and e-commerce, he has wrestled with how to explain the changes
to users. He tried to resist his urge to stuff the policy with legal
language, he said.

“We thought, what is the simplest way to describe it,” he said. “It’s hard


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