Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University first proposed replacing the fine print, legalese privacy policies used by websites and social networks with a standardized, easy-to-read label in a paper published in 2010.
Now that the glare of legislators, consumers and even the advertising industry is fully fixed on online privacy, the idea of a “nutrition facts”-style label for Web privacy policies is getting a second look.
The Carnegie Mellon proposal took the standard nutrition label familiar to all consumers – fat, calories, carbs etc listed clearly on the back of all food packages – and applied it to the privacy policies that are required on every website and social network, but that no one ever reads.
Take a look at the standardized privacy label the team created for the website of the fictional “Acme Corporation.”
In making their claim for the need for a standard label, the Carnegie Mellon team cited research that it would cost 365 billion dollars per year in lost productivity if consumers actually read the policies of all the companies they interact with.
“In short, today’s online privacy policies are failing consumers because finding information in them is difficult, consumers do not understand that there are differences between privacy policies, and policies take too long to read,” the researchers said in 2010.
Fast forward to 2011, and not much has changed.
A week ago, the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on online privacy where the discussion focused on the problem of: privacy policies that largely go unread.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) footnoted the Carnegie Mellon-type label approach to privacy policies in its 122-page online privacy report released last December.
The White House also created a subcommittee last fall to focus solely on online privacy, while all reports indicate Senators John Kerry (D-Mass) and John McCain (R-Ariz) are close to introducing legislation that would create the nation’s first “online privacy bill of rights.”
Of course, the issue of privacy and protecting their own rights would still fall to consumers, even with an easy-to-read privacy label standard. Seeing the fat grams in cake or the sugar level in a jar of frosting doesn’t stop someone from enjoying them both.
But, the Carnegie team has their own research to support their argument that a nutrition-style label would at least help.