By the Blouin News Technology staff

Do Americans lack understanding of privacy policies?

by in Personal Tech.

Denely Rafferty holds a sign depicting a Facebook page in Palo Alto, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Denely Rafferty holds a sign depicting a Facebook page in Palo Alto, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Americans are not doing so well in terms of their relationship to the internet. As revealed last week, the number of U.S. users who have faith that their online privacy and information is in good hands is at an all-time low. But while such doubts are obviously runoff from last year’s Snowden revelations, they may also be related to the fact that many Americans lack a solid understanding of how privacy policies work.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that less than half of Americans properly understand the concept of a privacy policy. The survey asked  1,066 adult internet users 12 questions, 44% of which correctly answered a true or false question on whether or not the presence of a privacy policy means that the company keeps the information that it collects from users confidential. (The answer is no.)

The number of wrong answers given by respondents highlights a deeply-rooted misunderstanding of privacy policies. Another interesting result revealed that only 61% of people understand what net neutrality is. In a multiple choice question, 61% chose the option indicating that net neutrality means the equal treatment of digital content. This is an important figure when considering the millions of public comments sent to the Federal Communications Commission regarding how the agency should proceed with its regulations for the internet.

This lack of understanding when it comes to privacy policies echoes comments made at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in September by Jean Camp, Director of the Security Informatics Program at Indiana University Bloomington. In a discussion on cyber security and how to get Americans to think differently about protecting themselves, she emphasized that the approach should be one similar to successful public health programs. Meaning that changing a password should be as automatic as washing one’s hands. Perhaps digesting privacy policies should fall under that umbrella as well, although it might be a bit trickier to get the public on board with reading pages of legal jargon.

Instead, it is time for companies to make their privacy policies more amenable to their users. Like Facebook. After coming under heavy fire for its confusing, jargon-ridden privacy policies in the past, the social media giant has revamped them several times over in order to appease both users and governments. (Two years ago, it settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that it exposed details about users’ lives without permission. An independent audit conducted last year found its privacy practices sufficient.) Most recently, Facebook “simplified” its privacy policy for its 1.35 billion users.

Overall, more education is needed regarding privacy and net neutrality. While better knowledge of both issues may not make Americans less jaded, it will at least provide them with tools to better protect themselves in the cyber world.