DISAGREEABLE PRIVACY POLICIES: MISMATCHES BETWEEN MEANING AND USERS’ UNDERSTANDING

By: Joel R. Reidenberg, Travis Breaux, Lorrie Faith Cranor, Brian French, Amanda Grannis, James T. Graves, Fei Liu, Aleecia McDonald, Thomas B. Norton, Rohan Ramanath, N. Cameron Russell, Norman Sadeh and Florian Schaub

ABSTRACT

Privacy policies are verbose, difficult to understand, take too long to read, and may be
the least-read items on most websites even as users express growing concerns about
information collection practices. For all their faults, though, privacy policies remain
the single most important source of information for users to attempt to learn how
companies collect, use, and share data. Likewise, these policies form the basis for the selfregulatory
notice and choice framework that is designed and promoted as a replacement
for regulation. The underlying value and legitimacy of notice and choice depends, however,
on the ability of users to understand privacy policies.

This paper investigates the differences in interpretation among expert, knowledgeable,
and typical users and explores whether these groups can understand the practices described
in privacy policies at a level sufficient to support rational decision-making. This paper seeks to fill an important gap in the understanding of privacy policies through primary research on
user interpretation and to inform the development of technologies combining natural
language processing, machine learning, and crowdsourcing for policy interpretation and
summarization.

For this research, we recruited a group of law and public policy graduate students at
Fordham University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh
(“knowledgeable users”) and presented these law and policy researchers with a set of privacy
policies from companies in the e-commerce and news and entertainment industries. We
asked them nine basic questions about the policies’ statements regarding data collection, data
use, and retention. We then presented the same set of policies to a group of privacy experts
and to a group of crowd workers representing typical Internet users.

The findings show areas of common understanding across all groups for certain data
collection and deletion practices, but also demonstrate very important discrepancies in the
interpretation of privacy policy language, particularly with respect to data sharing. The
discordant interpretations arose both within groups and between the experts and the two
other groups.

The presence of these significant discrepancies has critical implications. First, the
common understandings of some attributes of described data practices mean that semiautomated
extraction of meaning from website privacy policies may be able to assist typical
users and improve the effectiveness of notice by conveying the true meaning of these
policies. However, the disagreements among experts and disagreement between experts and
the other groups reflect that ambiguous wording in typical privacy policies undermines the
ability of privacy policies to effectively convey notice of data practices to the general public.

The results of this research will, consequently, have significant policy implications for
the construction of the notice and choice framework and for the U.S. reliance on this
approach. The gap in interpretation indicates that privacy policies may be misleading the
general public and that those policies could be considered legally unfair and deceptive. And,
where websites are not effectively conveying privacy policies to consumers in a way that a
“reasonable person” could, in fact, understand the policies, “notice and choice” fails as a
framework. Such a failure has broad international implications since websites extend their
reach beyond the United States.

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