Half of online privacy policies unreadable, CHOICE says

An analysis of 75 websites and smartphone apps that are popular in Australia has found half of them have privacy policies that could be considered “unreadable”, making it almost impossible for consumers to know what they’re agreeing to.

When signing up for a new website or app, it’s not uncommon for most, if not all, of us to just agree to its terms and conditions without even glancing at the privacy policy.

Even if you did try to do your due diligence and read the legal conditions you are voluntarily agreeing to abide by, it’s likely you’d be met with pages and pages of dense jargon.

Leading Australian consumer group CHOICE has conducted a study into the privacy policies of 75 of the most commonly used websites and apps in Australia, and found most are extremely long and almost impossible for the average person to comprehend.

The websites and apps covered included social media such as Twitter and Facebook, banking, shopping, government services, and apps for shopping such as the Coles and Woolworths apps.

Read: Australians want more control over their personal information

The 75 policies were analysed using the online grammar tool Grammarly. CHOICE found there was a wide variation in reading lengths and readability scores. The average length of a policy was 4000 words and the average read time clocked in at 16 minutes.

“Privacy policies should be clear, concise and easy to read for most people. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect people to spend hours a week reading dense legal jargon just to use a product or service,” says Kate Bower, consumer data advocate at CHOICE.

“The longest privacy policy was Microsoft’s, coming in at a whopping 14,861 words and taking nearly an hour to read.”

Privacy policies form part of what is known as a ‘notice and consent’ privacy model, where the onus is on the individual to protect their own privacy by only agreeing to suitable terms.

Read: How older Australians can fight back against scammers

But Ms Bower says if businesses are making these policies impossible to read and comprehend in a reasonable time frame, then they are effectively skirting regulations and undermining the system.

“This comparison shows that that model has failed consumers and is not able to adequately protect them from both privacy and consumer harms,” she says.

“Notice and consent mechanisms, while useful, need to be supported by regulations where consumers are not put in a position where they must choose between accessing a product or service and forgoing their privacy or agency.”

CHOICE is calling on the government to introduce standardised privacy statements with a uniform layout to be used by all websites and apps operating in Australia.

Read: Why you might be more vulnerable to fake news

Ultimately, issues of online privacy fall under the Privacy Act 1988. The federal government, through the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), began a wide-ranging review of the act last year.

The review is still ongoing but has so far produced a draft amendment bill to the act that introduces harsher penalties for misuse of consumer data, but does not actually address unreadable privacy statements.

Polling conducted by the OAIC indicates online privacy is a top concern for 70 per cent of Australians and that 87 per cent want more control and choice over how their personal data is collected and used.

With an election just over the horizon, neither of the major political parties can afford to ignore an issue about which such a large majority is concerned.

Do you read the privacy policies you come across online? How concerned are you about your online information? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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