A Comparative Study of Online Privacy Policies and Formats

Date of Original Version



Working Paper

Rights Management

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Abstract or Description

Online privacy policies are difficult to understand. Most privacy policies require a college reading level and an ability to decode legalistic, confusing, or jargon-laden phrases. Privacy researchers and industry groups have devised several standardized privacy policy formats to address these issues and help people compare policies. We evaluated three formats in this paper: layered policies, which present a short form with standardized components in addition to a full policy; the Privacy Finder privacy report, which standardizes the text descriptions of privacy practices in a brief bulleted format; and conventional non-standardized human-readable policies. We contrasted six companies’ policies, deliberately selected to span the range from unusually readable to challenging. Based on the results of our online study of 749 Internet users, we found participants were not able to reliably understand companies’ privacy practices with any of the formats. Compared to natural language, participants were faster with standardized formats but at the expense of accuracy for layered policies. Privacy Finder formats supported accuracy more than natural language for harder questions. Improved readability scores did not translate to improved performance. All formats and policies were similarly disliked. We discuss our findings as well as public policy implications.