Professor: Website privacy policies are ‘ineffective’

Joel Reidenberg speaks to a gathering of the CIO Roundtable at Lincoln Center.

Joel Reidenberg speaks to a gathering of the CIO Roundtable at Lincoln Center.

Website user agreements are often so obtuse that customers can’t adequately understand what their exposure is when they sign up for online services, a Fordham University professor said during a recent roundtable discussion.

Joel R. Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor and the founding academic director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at the university, told an audience gathered for the monthly CIO Roundtable meeting at Fordham that the way privacy policies are developed and shared with users does not work.

“There’s a theory of pretending it does, but the reality is everybody sort of recognizes it doesn’t,” Reidenberg said.

The professor, who is working on the “Usable Privacy Policy Project,” said one of his colleagues on the project took a look at the daunting task a consumer would face if he or she attempted to digest all the privacy information available.

“They looked at how long it would take if someone read all the privacy policies that they are subjected to,” Reidenberg said as the audience laughed. “And it was a month of work. The other thing is most of the policies are written in a way that you need a post-graduate education to understand them.”

The privacy project, conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University and Fordham, is funded by a share of a $20-million grant from the National Science Foundation. Project researchers are seeking to provide users with a better understanding of the privacy policies they agree to when using certain websites.

Reidenberg is a recognized expert on information privacy law, teaching that subject at Fordham. He has testified before the U.S. Congress on data privacy and has been a consultant to both the Federal Trade Commission and the European Commission.

His appearance at the CIO Roundtable, a gathering of those employed as information technology officers, faculty and some attorneys, featured an update on Reidenberg’s latest research efforts, which he hopes will prove useful as privacy policy law continues to evolve.

The privacy project is ongoing.

The CIO Roundtable, organized by Associate Professor Aditya Saharia, meets monthly in the university’s Lowenstein Building at Lincoln Center. For more information, contact Saharia at saharia@fordham.edu.

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