The researchers selected the 75 most popular websites that had privacy policies ranging from 144 words to a stupefying 7,669. They assumed that people would read the privacy policies at 250 words per minute, which is on the low end of the general average that people read in order to comprehend a text. However, the analysis doesn’t seem to take into account that into account that this also isn’t prose that people are reading. The documents people are reading – privacy policies – are typically written in such dry legalese that the mere words themselves seem to be dosed with comprehension-repellant. Reading the privacy policies simply as a rote mechanism is one thing, but actually comprehending them is a different beast entirely, meaning the amount of time required to understand all those privacy policies could be even more demanding than reported in their analysis.
Speaking with NPR, Cranor described how most people really have no idea about how much of their information is being used or even how it is being used. She likened the intensity of the info-gathering involved in several of these websites to having some kind of voyeur following you around the mall and recording each and every thing you look at, touch, or remark upon.
As if the time demands weren’t staggering enough, Cranor goes on to explain that it’s not even really economically feasible for people to read the privacy policies. If time is truly money, Cranor says that the total cost in time spent reading those privacy policies (if they indeed did read them) would total around $781 billion a year.
Generally, I think of privacy policies pertaining to websites I use as less about keeping me involved in the democratic process and more about the company informing me in advance of what kind of thumbscrews my privacy can look forward to. It’s not like there’s a mediation process where Facebook’s lawyers meet with my personal agent and they discuss the site’s terms until both parties can come to a satisfying agreement. That doesn’t happen because, one, Facebook’s lawyers would probably win everything they want anyways and, two, I don’t have an agent because I’m a normal person.
So even if privacy policies were explained with the most simplified of jargon and they were a breezy 600 words, would anybody still read them? That wouldn’t ever happen, but again, for the sake of argument, assume that type of practice became common for websites. What would it take to get you to routinely read every policy for every website that you use? Or is this just a bad model in general that demands to be overhauled into a version more functional in the year 2012? You should share your thoughts with us and other readers because, in the mean time, under this current model of privacy terms that we live with, every single one of us should feel exquisitely lucky that we haven’t ended up with the same fate as that fictional young boy from South Park.