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What Did I Just Agree To?
Privacy Policies and Readability

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After reading an article about online privacy policies and their general incomprehensibility to the average consumer (Fanguy, Kleen, Soule, 2004), we thought it might be interesting to run some readability analyses on some online privacy policies.
The first is a well-known social networking site's privacy policy. Below is a summary of the readability results for the entire text of the privacy policy excluding contact information:
Privacy Policy Readability Results
And below is the Fry readability graph for every 500-word sample from the beginning to the end.
Privacy Policy Readability Results
The text averages out to a reading level of about 13th grade (college freshman) with the most difficult passages falling into the 19th grade (see paragraph below). This is an interesting finding as it is well-noted that the average adult in the U.S. reads at about an 8th grade level (DuBay, 2006).
More in line with the methods of Fanguy, Kleen, and Soule, we also performed a Cloze Test on a 127 word sample of the policy which we had not read by removing every 5th word(the average and median of the Gunning fog, Flesch-Kincaid, SMOG, Coleman-Liau, and Automated readability indices were 19th grade). The authors of this site scored 48% which falls short of the common standard of 60% in order to be considered easy reading for a target audience. We may interpret this result to mean that assuming we are among the target audience of this statement, that this particular passage is not easy reading for us.

Ok! We're Busted!

After analyzing our own privacy policy, we admit that it is no easier to read than the above mentioned. In fact, it's harder! It clocks in at about 14th grade (2nd year undergraduate). We suspect that almost any online privacy policy we analyze will likely have high text complexity. One explanation for this is that in a litigious age one cannot be too careful; the language must be crafted to cover a very broad spectrum of possibilities. Is this necessarily a bad thing? As with almost everything in life, in some ways yes, and in some ways no. Readers should know what a site's policies are, and both the user and the site owner should explicitly agree (via some policy) on what they expect from one another when using the site. On the other hand though, if such agreements are so complex that its users can't understand the agreement without the assistance of a legal professional, and if it's something we just scroll to the end of so we can click the "I agree" button, then it almost seems pointless doesn't it?
We do try to be as transparent as possible though and we encourage the reader to at least try to read both our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. The interested reader may analyze both of these by pasting either one the box on our homepage.
In the interest of transparency, we do note that the gist of our privacy policy is not difficult to understand:

Concluding Remarks

Our observations are in line with the conclusions reached by Fanguy, Kleen, and Soule (2008). The privacy policies we analyzed (ours included) are arguably difficult reading at best.
So what should we take away from all of this? We should at the very least ask ourselves some questions. To whom are we trusting our data? What kinds of data do they collect? Why do they collect it? What are their policies concerning privacy and the sharing of this data with others? Are we able to actually read and understand these written policies without assistance?
We can at least speak for ourselves: the data we collect doesn't personally identify any individual, and we collect it because it is exceedingly helpful in making a better site and creating a better experience of our users. And we don't share the data with anyone.
We encourage the reader to analyze the readability of the privacy policy and/or terms of service statement of their favorite social networking site, or any other site with which they share information; our site is no exception.
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Links and References

DuBay, W. H. 2006. Smart language: Readers, Readability, and the Grading of Text. Costa Mesa:Impact Information.
Fanguy R., Kleen B., Soule L. (2004). Privacy policies: cloze test reveals readability concerns. Issues in Information Systems, iacis.org
Nielsen J. (2011), Cloze Test for Reading Comprehension, from The Nielsen Norman Group, Evidence-Based User Experience Research, Training, and Consulting
Concluding Article on this Website: What is a Readability Index?
Article on this Website: The Fry Readability Formula.
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