The language of privacy – will it change?

Today I stumbled across a British privacy report that re-wrote Instagram’s Privacy Policy for teens in non-legalese English. While not commonly a product issue, Terms of Service and Privacy Statements can have an impact on users, especially when they run afoul of them. Jenny Afia, the lawyer who rewrote the terms, believes everyone, but especially teens, should be paying attention. Says Afia: “once people become more aware of what they are giving up, they will demand better terms.” She adds that users “don’t know what is being done, so no one is saying can it be done differently.”

I love the clear and explicit language that Ms Afia has used in her rewritten TOS and I wish all services and apps used it. Here are just two comparisons that I thought were interesting.

First, on what kind of information Instagram collects, from Instagram’s privacy policy: “We collect the following types of information… Information you provide us directly:

  • Your username, password and email address when you register for an Instagram account.
  • Profile information that you provide for your user profile (e.g., first and last name, picture, phone number). This information allows us to help you or others be “found” on Instagram.
  • User Content (e.g., photos, comments, and other materials) that you post to the Service.
  • Communications between you and Instagram. For example, we may send you Service-related emails (e.g., account verification, changes/updates to features of the Service, technical and security notices). Note that you may not opt out of Service-related e-mails.”

Contrast that with Ms Afia’s, who summarizes five bullets into this paragraph: “This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

Second, on advertising. From Ms Afia: “We might send you adverts connected to your interests which we are monitoring. You cannot stop us doing this and it will not always be obvious that it is an advert.” Contrast with Instagram’s “we may use the information that we receive to… provide personalized content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing” under the “how we use your information” section. Also: “this information would allow third-party ad networks to, among other things, deliver targeted advertisements that they believe will be of most interest to you” under the “sharing of your information” section. It’s not just that Ms Afia’s is clearer and more direct, it’s hard even finding the passages in Instagram’s terms of service that speak of advertising, how it works, and the data it is based on.

Instagram on a cold day.

Instagram on a cold day.

Not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to the relation between legalese and actual liability, but I do wish that privacy policies were as straightforward, understandable, and as short as Ms Afia has done. Users tend to blindly agree to all terms when signing up for a service but Pew Research shows that the attitude of acceptance may be changing: Some 74% say it is “very important” to them that they be in control of who can get information about them, and 65% say it is “very important” to them to control what information is collected about them. Yet “half of those surveyed said they felt confident they understood how their information would be used, 47% said they were not, and many of these people felt confused, discouraged or impatient when trying to make decisions about sharing their personal information with companies.”

It will be interesting to see if, driven by these changing sentiments, companies change their stance on privacy policies and terms of service statements and start making them more user-friendly. 

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