Data Responsibility: The Difficulties of Achieving Transparency
It is no secret that in the realm of data responsibility, there is much debate about transparency and how to achieve it. What does true transparency look like? How do you communicate about data to ensure data subjects understand what is happening? And in the end, how does this relate to the legal obligations around informed consent, transparency and the ability of users to protect their privacy?
Privacy policies provide insight and clarity and what data is being collected, for what purpose, under what legal justification and who can be contacted regarding this data. The only problem is that these privacy policies are usually written using language only accessible to highly skilled experts in this area and/or lawyers and regulators. Thus, bringing into question whether they help achieve transparency.
In 2018, the BBC explored the difficulties of simply reading the privacy policies of major social media sites. They found that to understand the text of the policies, you had to have at least a university-level education, not to mention the length of time it would take to read them, even with the required education level. This is not unique to social media; education technology companies face similar challenges. In a study conducted by Common Sense Media, the majority of these edtech companies’ privacy policies and terms of services documents scored above the average adult reading level on various readability tests.
However, to truly address the issues around users controlling how much and what data is collected about them, the fundamental business models need to be challenged. Twitter, Meta (which owns Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram), Google etc., make their money off user data whilst the services are free. How these companies make money is their ability to provide targeted advertising, which is based on their ability to, at a granular level, build profiles of their users, which are then matched with the audience wishes of companies paying these data behemoths for advertisement placements. The more data they have, the better the user profiles and the better the advertising service they can provide. Furthermore, much of the focus is on these Big Tech companies who collect the data, but there is also the need to shine a light on the selling and purchasing of data by data brokers in the United States.
To build on this, the market dominance of these companies makes it difficult as a small organisation or company to avoid using them or establish an alternative business model. Big Tech are often key to success for these small businesses, whether you are looking to sell items on Facebook Marketplace or simply understand the visitor to your website (Google Analytics).
Without challenging these business models, and exploring other options, transparent privacy policies and terms of service do little to achieve the true aim, which is to give users the ability to decide what level of privacy they wish to have in the digital world. And as digital technologies become more entrenched and new technologies emerge that can collect new forms of data, it is becoming increasingly urgent that a solution is found.