October 4, 2022

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Online privacy policies: just who are they designed for?

Online privacy policies: just who are they designed for?

Ask any parent of a teenager or pre-teen–the privacy of identity and location is their number one concern. This
is true for both the online and offline worlds. Yet where in the offline world we have privacy laws that work to protect the identity of the individual, in the online world things aren’t so clear cut.

Despite our actions to keep our personal data secure, every day our inboxes are filled to overflowing with unwanted spam; after all, I can only buy so many cheap prescription drugs and discounted Rolexes.

Sometimes I even give false details just to foil the spammers, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down the ever-increasing amount of spam I receive.

Of course, online retailers and other sites that ask for personal details in exchange for something (perhaps your email
address for a free ebook or report, or join a forum) have resorted to various methods of ensuring that we feel secure to participate in such transactions.

Many now use a double opt-in process, whereby when you first give your details you receive an email in return, asking
you to confirm your identity and desire to enter into a transaction.

Many sites also have a Privacy policy clearly marked as such on their website, making sure it can be ‘found’ by
search engines and browsers so that no warning messages pop up when you visit them.

But despite an increasing number of measures to ensure we feel safe and secure in our online dealings, research has
shown that Privacy policies tend to intensify privacy concerns, rather than engender trust.

When Facebook opened up its doors to all and sundry many commentators noted that all of its content–content that we the members create–is ‘owned’ by Facebook and that they have rights to repurposing that content should they choose. Despite the many loud alarm bells that this raised across the blogosphere, Facebook has grown into an online phenomenon (even though it recently saw its first ever drop in numbers).

Researchers have suggested it is the wording of these privacy policies that can cause the uneasy feelings and these are easily fixed, making one wonder if business communicators were involved in the policy creation process; if so, then we can ask why they did such a poor job, and if not we can ask why was the communication of the policy left to lawyers, site owners and webmasters.

Irene Pollach commented recently that research findings suggest that these online privacy policies have been drafted
with the threat of litigation in mind, rather than a commitment to fair data handling practices.

Two sample sentences from online privacy policies illustrate how companies themselves create our fears (the emphases are Irene’s):

  • Circuit City Stores, Inc. (including its subsidiaries) “from time to time may also provide names, addresses or email addresses to strategic partners who have information, products or services that may be of interest to you.”
  • Established members will occasionally receive information on products, services, special deals, and a newsletter.

Neither of these two approaches is necessarily wrong, even unethical, as long as the approach is made very clear
to the site visitor before transactions commence.

However, such approaches are usually buried deep within the transaction after it has commenced.

But corporate websites and the communicators who supply them with content could do worse than visit what some communicators see as the scourge and bastardisation of the internet: direct marketing sites. Yes, those long one page sales letters with large Capital Letters, bolding, underlining, italics, a zillion testimonials from happy customers, and yellow highlighting a-plenty.

The owners of the most successful sites make it very clear from the very first time you visit their site that they are
looking to enter into a transaction, with the eventual aim of you purchasing something. Their visual aesthetic crimes aside, the most successful sites make it very clear what their policy is on data handling, and the vast majority
never trade or give away your details to anyone.

This is not out of some altruistic behavior, but out of business common sense. Once they have your details they
will happily market their own and others’ products to you, for which they will make a profit on each sale, but they will never give away their database because ‘trust’ and ‘reputation’ are crucial for them. Without these two transactional cornerstones they would find it increasingly hard to move you from purchasing their low-cost/low-profit, entry-level products to more expensive purchases that generate increasing amounts of profit for them.

Because it is easy for an individual to track from which site(s) their personal data is compromised and spam originates, the online direct marketers rightly shudder at even the suggestion that they are the cause of someone’s spam problem. With revenues for some of these direct marketers reaching over a million dollars a year, it is easy to see why the loss of trust and damage to their reputation can cause a very real pain in their hip pocket.

Perhaps we, as professional communicators for our clients, our employers and ourselves, can take a leaf from our direct marketing colleagues’ rule book: be very clear and upfront with what you want and what you are giving in exchange for the most valuable of commodities, your visitor’s personal data.

Lee Hopkins is a business communications consultant specializing in internal communications. He blogs regularly at leehopkins.net, and is a regular contributor to the For Immediate Release podcast.

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