Privacy Policies Best Understood By College Grads, Senate Investigates

by Matthew L. Schafer

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology held a hearing on Internet privacy.  The hearing comes at a time when online privacy is beginning to gain more attention.  In a survey released last June over 81% of Internet users said they are concerned about companies keeping track of their web usage in order to target them with advertising.  Social media privacy is driving concern, as changes to Facebook’s privacy policy recently prompted the founding of an anti-Facebook Privacy Policy group that has over 2.4 million members.

In the opening comments of the hearing, Sen. Jay Rockefeller [D-WV] told a short story about a shopper wandering through the mall that had a machine watching his every move through the store, only to have that information sold to advertisers.  He compared this to the current state of privacy online.

Tuesday’s hearing included FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Apple, Inc. Vice President Guy Tribble, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor, Alma Whitten of Google, Jim Harper of The Cato Institute, Dorothy Atwood of AT&T, and Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania.  In the first panel, Chairmen Leibowitz and Genachowski both expressed their concerns about the lack of privacy online.

“There is a huge disconnect between what consumers think happens to their data and what really happens to their data,” Jon Liebowitz said during his testimony.  “Most consumers believe that a privacy policy protects their policy, instead a privacy policy delineates their rights and lack thereof.”

Liebowitz also cited a British company’s April Fools joke where it added a line that to its contract, which told users that if they agreed the company owned their soul.  Only 12% of users opted out of “Immortal Soul Clause.”  Liebowitz also pointed out that while Internet search engines are supposed to anonymize search data, even anonymized search information can reveal peoples’ identity.  In 2006 for example, using AOL search data The New York Times tracked down 62-year-old Thelma Arnold, a.k.a AOL user No. 4417749, in Lilburn, Ga.

In the second panel, comprised of scholars and industry executives, Facebook’s Bret Taylor argued that social technologies like Facebook are not detrimental to user privacy.  He called the Internet a “passive repository of information.”  Taylor also argued that Facebook provides users with “powerful control” over the information they choose to share with others.  Taylor spent much of his testimony highlighting Facebook’s success as a social medium.

Facebook’s current privacy policy is approximately 10 pages long, and has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease of 34.  Any score below 30 is best understood by college graduates.  AT&T’s 18 page privacy policy, has a reading ease level of 20.  Google’s current privacy policy is approximately five pages long, and has a reading ease score of 12, which is best understood by college graduates that have over 18 years of formal education.

Despite the complex privacy policy Goggle’s Dr. Whitten argued that Google’s interactive privacy tools make controlling one’s personal information easy, saying “I have devoted my career to one primary goal making it intuitive simple and useful for internet users to take control of their privacy and security.”

Not all on the panel were sold on the companies’ promises to protect Internet privacy.  Joseph Turow, professor and author of the book Niche Envy, argued that the current uses of personal information by companies are invasive.  He said that most consumers are misinformed or under-informed about privacy policy settings.

“American’s don’t want a situation where content is tailored for them based on the firm’s use of their data without their knowing it,” Turow testified.  “Unfortunately the situation they don’t want is getting worse.”

Tuesday’s Senate hearing is just a first step in address what seems to be the ever growing concerns over privacy online.  While it is currently unclear what next steps the government will take in addressing these concerns, it is unlikely that Congress will get a vote on any privacy legislation this year.  Sen. John Kerry [D-MA] did release a statement, however, saying he intended to pursue legislation.  The FTC is hoping to release recommendations regarding privacy online in the fall.

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in First Amendment, Internet Policy, Media Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Privacy Policies Best Understood By College Grads, Senate Investigates

  1. dan tynan says:

    congrats matt. I’ve been reading every news report I can find on these hearings, trying to locate a transcript. your report is by far the best and most thorough (though I’d recommend using a spell checker — I saw a few typos). nicely done.

    now… got any idea where I can find a transcript of this hearing?



    • Matt Schafer says:

      Hi Dan,

      I’m glad the article was informative, and my apologies for any typos. As far as a transcript, if you go here and click on any of the pannelists names, you will be linked to their individual testimony. However, the Q&A is not included unfortunately. I hope that helps.

  2. Pingback: A Thorny Issue: Teachers’ and learners’ right to privacy | The official blog of PikiFriends

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