IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Google, Facebook privacy policies more confusing than credit card agreements: survey

Privacy comprehension
Siegel Gale

Google and Facebook privacy policies are more confusing and harder to understand than the small print coming from credit card companies and even government entities, according to a recent survey.

A global branding firm, Siegel+Gale, surveyed 403 users about "consumer perceptions and comprehension" of the two Internet giants' privacy policies. 

"The findings reveal an immense lack of understanding among respondents," the firm said. "These privacy policies are tougher to understand than documents known for being complex — including credit card agreements and government notices."

A Google spokesperson said the company doesn't commend on "third-party reports." 

But, Google believes its "updated Privacy Policy has made our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users. We undertook the most extensive notification effort in Google’s history, and we’re continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services."

We asked Facebook for comment about the findings, and will update this story when we hear back.

When it comes to the world's largest social network and and its privacy policies, a "major comprehension issue is requiring users to use an application programming interface (API) to understand how their information is used," the firm said. "Less than 40 percent of Facebook users understood how an API can be used to access and view public information."

Only 20 percent "could correctly identify how to block outside applications and websites from accessing their information on Facebook."

"Facebook sends users to their Graph API to see their public information, but you need to be a developer to understand it," says Siegel+Gale. "Not good enough. Explain it as you would to your grandmother."

Google's privacy policy also flummoxed respondents; More than half of Google users said they weren't aware that the company's recently revamped privacy policy "also applied to their use of Google Talk, Google Maps, YouTube and Blogger."

"Google touted its new privacy policy that went into effect March 1 as a demonstration of their commitment to simplicity," Siegel+Gale said. "They combined 60 policies into one — but consolidation alone is not simplification, especially not if it comes at the cost of clarity and context. Some sections about which information is collected and what constitutes public information were so vague that the Siegel+Gale experts writing the survey found it impossible to write an adequate comprehension question for these topics."

As a result, 46 percent of those surveyed say they will "change their behavior after reading the policies for both Google and Facebook," and 75 percent plan to change their privacy settings on Facebook; 63 percent plan to be "more careful about using Google services in the future."

Half said they'll use Google less in the future; 35 percent said they'll use Facebook less.

Google's new privacy policy is under scrutiny both in Europe and in the United States; Facebook seems to tweak its privacy policies more than most people change their profile photos.

Keeping track of it all is quite a chore — especially for consumers who are not well-versed in making their way through the labyrinth of legalese in such policies.

Siegel+Gale's suggestions about what Google and Facebook should do make sense: "Use simpler policies that inform and educate."

All privacy policies, the company says, not just Facebook's and Google's, must convey three types of information: What information is collected and how; how the information is stored and shared; and how a user can manage their privacy.

The firm is not the first to draw attention to this; the Federal Trade Commission, in a report last month aptly titled "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change," said consumers need to have the "ability to make decisions about their data at a relevant time and context," and to "make information collection and use practices transparent." And if companies don't do it, the FTC wants Congress to make it so.

The Siegel+Gale survey "shows that there is an urgent demand among users to have greater access to succinct and transparent policy information," said Thomas Mueller, the firm's global director of customer experience. "People want to know how their personal information is being collected, stored and used."

This story was updated at 3:55 p.m. ET.

Check out Technolog, Gadgetbox, Digital Life and In-Game on Facebook, and on Twitter, follow Suzanne Choney.