Social media urged to simplify terms and conditions by UK parliament
A report issued today by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is calling on the government to work with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to develop a set of information standards that would commit websites and apps to explain how they use personal data in clear, concise and simple terms.
Public engagement with social media platforms is enormous: every day at least 400 million tweets are posted to Twitter, 350 million photos are added to Facebook and over a billion videos are viewed on YouTube. Yet the Science and Technology Committee found that social media users may not be fully aware of how their data can be used by websites and apps, given the excessive length and complexity of the terms and conditions which companies encourage users to agree to. The committee added that any reasonable person would struggle with long privacy policies.
It was noted that the rules have been designed for use in US courtrooms to protect organisations in the event of legal action, rather than to convey information. According to the committee, these contracts are not the best mechanism for demonstrating that users have given informed consent for some of the ways companies are now exploiting personal data. Users, committee members say, may not be aware of the ways in which their details can be used by websites and apps.
The chairman of the committee, MP Andrew Miller, pointed to a recent academic experiment in which Facebook manipulated the emotions of over 600,000 users by varying the stories they saw in their news feeds, noting: “Facebook’s experiment with users’ emotions highlighted serious concerns about the extent to which ticking the terms and conditions box can be said to constitute informed consent when it comes to the varied ways data is now being used by many websites and apps.”
He added: “Let’s face it, most people click ‘yes’ to terms and conditions contracts without reading them, because they are often laughably long and written in the kind of legalese you need a law degree from the USA to understand. Socially responsible companies wouldn’t want to bamboozle their users, of course, so we are sure most social media developers will be happy to sign up to the new guidelines regarding clear communication and informed consent which we are asking the government to draw up.”
Companies should have a greater responsibility to explain their need to acquire, as well as retain, personal information. MP Andrew Miller continued: “A line also needs to be drawn between the information that apps actually need to provide a service and the kind of personal information they often request when registering new users – information that is becoming increasingly valuable in our networked society.”
The committee’s report suggests that an internationally recognised Kitemark could be the first step towards ensuring the responsible use of UK citizens’ data by social media platforms and other organisations.