I have lost count of the number of times I have read variations on the statement:
And the other common one is:
“Actually reading all the privacy policies on the sites you visit would take [insert number between 50 and 100] days each year.”
Even the most dedicated privacy professionals and advocates will tell you, sotto voce and often off the record, that they don’t read them all!
To prove a point, one software company, PC Pitstop, buried a $1,000 prize in a licence agreement to the first person to send them an e-mail to claim it. More than 3,000 people agreed to the terms before they got a result—and paid out.
Of course, hardly anybody reads them. In the vast majority of cases, it would be a colossal waste of time.
There have been lots of attempts to improve privacy policies, of course. The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK has published guidance, and the EU Data Protection Regulation proposes a “layered” pictographic model. The idea is laudable, but they ruin it with a mandatory set of icons (PDF – go to pg. 115) that are terrible in almost every single way.
To my mind, the solution is not to try to reform them—which will be a difficult and constant battle. The solution is to introduce something else—something that has the sole and clear purpose of informing the visitor about privacy and data practices.
This thing to my mind is a transparency policy, or perhaps a transparency statement.
In fact, in the event of a dispute or regulatory enforcement action, authorities could look at the two in tandem. Where the two disagree or present incompatibilities, the authorities could be given freedom to allow the transparency statement to take precedence and take action on the basis of deceptive practices. This in itself might be less punishing on the website owners—but would be an important incentive to correct such incompatibilities, to ensure transparency doesn’t simply become another layer of obscurity.
Because the transparency statement is also more likely to be read, commented on and engaged with, it will likely improve over time, and accepted standards might emerge. This would potentially create a virtuous circle that further improves clarity for consumers.
It is sometimes said that privacy has the capacity to become a competitive differentiator. If this means having to compare two or more Macbeth-sized documents side by side, that is never going to happen. However, you could spare two minutes to compare transparency statements or discover that one provider doesn’t have one.
Transparency statements could be the vehicle to enable the majority of people to make better-informed choices than they currently do and use a truly market-driven approach to online privacy practice.