Wanted: Privacy policies written for human beings

The biggest problem with online privacy is that nobody understands it. Poorly written privacy policies are a big reason why. UPDATE: StickK responds.

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You know the biggest problem with online privacy? Online privacy policies.

As a concept, privacy isn’t difficult to grok. People should have control over their personal information and how it is used. If they don’t want it used, there should be a simple and permanent way to prevent that from happening. Period, full stop.

But reading the average privacy policy – and I’ve read literally hundreds -- makes you want to lie down with a cool towel over your head until the pain passes. They are written by lawyers for lawyers, with little regard for what users can and can’t understand. They can also be beasts. 

Facebook’s current privacy policy is a 5,888 word monster – or 1,404 words longer than the US Constitution. (Though, to be fair, Facebook has plenty of FAQs and other pages explaining its privacy policies that are a little less dense.) I guarantee you the only people who’ve ever read it are Facebook’s attorneys and privacy wonks with a migraine.

If you want people to understand privacy – and maybe not be either so blasé or so paranoid about how their data is being used – we need privacy policies that human beings can understand.

[ See also: The first truly honest privacy policy. ]

I started thinking about this after I was recently contacted by the general counsel for StickK, a site that uses social networking techniques to help people “stickk” to goals, like losing weight or quitting smoking. I had written about StickK for in a previous blog for Computerworld more than two years ago. I liked the service but hated the privacy policy, which gave StickK full rights to use your photos and videos as it wished, and reserved the right to share your information with third parties on an opt-out basis.

StickK: Guilting thousands toward self improvement since 2009.StickK: Guilting thousands toward self improvement since 2009.

(Remember, this is a site where people confess to being overweight, addicted to drugs or alcohol, adultery, failure to floss, or any number of other personal shortcomings. Not the kind of thing you’d necessarily want buttered all over the InterWebs with your photo attached, or entered into a background check database.)

Shortly after my post appeared I got a response from StickK, which quickly changed its privacy policy and removed most of the language I objected to. It’s rare to get that kind of response from any company, let alone such a rapid one, and I applauded them for it.

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