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Privacy policies are incomprehensible to most underage users

The UK’s Children’s Code highlights the issue for younger people.

On September 2, the UK’s Children’s Code, formerly the Age Appropriate Design Code, came into force, which compels big tech firms who serve underage users to develop best practices and principles that protect their youngest users. But it’s not just the changes to who can message under-18s and how their data is handled that is an issue within the tech sector.

A new analysis by Pilot Fish Media finds that just one in eight website privacy policies are readable by those under the age of 18 – making it almost impossible for younger users to convincingly give their acceptance to the privacy policies that dominate the Internet.

In all, the organisation looked at 80 of the world’s most popular websites to analyse their privacy policies – the key bits of the website that explain how data of those who visit it is handled, and what recompense and abilities visitors have to ensure that things are kept secure. They checked the language used against the Flesch reading score, which assesses how readable a privacy policy is based on age and education level.

Comprehensible or not comprehensible?

The goal of the work was to interpret the ages of people who can confidently understand the policies before accepting the terms and conditions. If someone isn’t able to understand the policies they’re agreeing to, it seems unlikely they’d be able to give properly informed consent to them.

The Flesch score works by assigning a given text a number. A lower score indicates that the text is more complicated, whereas a higher score indicates that it’s readable for those with lower reading ages. Therefore, to be understood by a broader range of users, a website wants their privacy policy to have a higher Flesch score on the scale. Results, however, were mixed.

The best site, with the clearest privacy policy, was the BBC’s.

“The BBC ranked highest for the most accessible reading age, with a Flesch reading score of 71, allowing children aged 12+ years old to read and understand the privacy policy when navigating the site,” Pilot Fish Media said.

It’s all about understanding

Others ranked much lower. ESPN scored a 30 on the Flesch scale, meaning that people aged 18+ would be the only ones likely to understand it. CNN, Netflix, eBay and Fox News also had scores in the low 30s, indicating a range of readers that would only be comfortable if they were school leavers.

“We’re all guilty of clicking the ‘accept’ button without reading the terms and conditions, but do we really know what we’re agreeing to when it comes to the privacy policies of our favourite websites and social media platforms?”

- Pilot Fish Media

And it’s not the level of language that makes us more likely to click without reading, but the amount of language to wade through, too. The average word count of all 80 policies is 5,130 words, but Indeed’s privacy policy takes the title of wordiest policy with 15,420 words. That means that users would have to work through 629 sentences in order to fully understand what they were accepting in the privacy policy. If you were to read all of it, it’d take more than an hour to read.

As anyone who has ever visited the Daily Mail’s website will know, they also don’t stint on length. Their privacy policy, at 9,846 words, was the fourth-longest encountered. It came just behind Samsung, who had some of the most worryingly long sentences of all: 346 of them spanned 11,241 words. That’s a world away from Barclays Bank, whose 345-word privacy policy was just 22 sentences long.

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