Augment Privacy Policies with Icons like Creative Commons Badges

A lot of folks, myself included, have considered the idea of adopting some of the ideas from the very successful Creative Commons project to apply to the persistent problems with online privacy. Aza Raskin has an excellent post examining this idea once more. He deftly puts his finger on a number of key issues.

Here’s where we stand: Companies need to write their own privacy policies/terms of service, replete with company-specific detail. Why? Because a small number of licenses can’t capture the required complexity. The problem is that for everyday people, reading and understanding those necessarily custom privacy policies is time consuming and nigh impossible.

His suggestion is to just use the idea of clear iconography from CC. He describes it as a bolt-on approach. It’s not too dissimilar from a related effort around targeted advertising, certainly a subset of the larger landscape of privacy concerns.

He also anticipates the issues with icons that may paint an adopter’s policies in a negative light. In a nutshell, absence of “bad” icons will read identically to positive use of the same. There is also apparently going to be a machine readable aspect and he further drives home the point of absent icons by explaining that any code synthesizing privacy policies will assume the worst when any particular point lacks a icon. Again, absence equals the worst choice so not using bad icons won’t matter. All the incentive is to adopt better policies and hence better icons out of the set available.

Mozilla has not decided to adopt this approach, this is still very much in the discussion stages. But part of what stalled past attempts along these lines, like P3P, was browser adoption. If Mozilla does proceed with the idea, he’s right, it certainly could bring a lot of momentum to bear. Though he doesn’t say as much, I could easily see Safari and Chrome adopting these privacy icons and their supporting code.

At the very least, Mozilla seems to be willing to explore the idea further. The post concludes with some details of an upcoming workshop. Here’s hoping Mozilla decides its worth going forward and that they are finally able to crack this thorny problem, at least partially if not completely.