Is Privacy Policy Language Irrelevant to Consumers?

This article reports the results of two experiments in which large, census-weighted samples of Americans read short excerpts from Facebook’s, Yahoo’s, and Google’s privacy policies, which are at issue in high-stakes privacy class-action lawsuits. Subjects were randomly assigned to read language from either vague policies, some of which had been adjudicated insufficient to notify consumers about the companies’ practices, or explicit policies. Though many experimental subjects read these privacy policy excerpts closely, subjects who saw the explicit policies did not differ from those who saw vague policies in their assessment of whether their assent to the policies would permit the corporate practices at issue. Subjects generally stated that agreement to either vague or explicit language authorized companies to collect or use their personal information, even though consumers regarded these corporate practices as intrusive. These experiments show that courts and laypeople can understand the same privacy policy language quite differently.

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