It would take nearly half a day of non-stop reading to read the privacy policies of the top 16 most downloaded social media apps, which total more than 92,000 words, according to a new study.

On average, social media privacy policies are 6,152 words long and take over 47 minutes to read fully, according to the study which includes platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter among others.

Very few users do read the tech giant’s data policies – only around one in 10, according to Addictivetips.com, which analysed the policies and polled 2,105 people on their attitudes to them.

A clear majority of respondents said privacy policies are too long and they don’t properly understand them. But 83 per cent say they would consent whether they had read the policy or not.

TikTok, which has been plagued by questions about its data sharing practices, has a privacy policy that would take more than 1 hour and 40 minutes to read, according to the study which says readers of TikTok’s policy would need to be 17 to 18 years old to comprehend it. The video sharing platform, particularly popular with teenagers, has a minimum sign up age of 13.

Source: Addictivetips.com study.

Perilous privacy policies

The results reinforce previous research that shows privacy policies have “become a tool used to manipulate rather than inform”.

Online companies rely on privacy policies to convey their intention to collect and use people’s data and collect their consent to do so. But a growing body of research suggests the bargain is anything but fair for consumers, and in Australia in particular the standard for content is inadequate to protect people’s privacy.

In a submission to the consumer regulator, which is currently investigating the online advertising technology market, the UNSW’s Dr Katharine Kemp outlines the systematic problems with online privacy policies, including how they are exploited by platform giants Google and Facebook, as well as smaller adtechs.

“The trends in privacy policies … make the claims that consumers have consented to the privacy-degrading data practices of the ad tech sector spurious, often disingenuous,” Kemp’s submission states.

“… firms have taken measures to make this data collection less visible, to obfuscate their data practices in opaque privacy policies, to create the illusion of consumer control and choice where little exists, and to circumvent consumers’ attempts to avoid the collection of their personal data and monitoring of their behaviour.”

Policy ‘jargon’

Addictivetips, an internet and technology user assistance site, says its research shows just how jargon laden and diffuse privacy policies have become.

Nearly one in five words in a privacy policy is “complex” and readers typically need to be in their mid to late teens to have a chance at understanding them, despite most social media companies having a minimum sign up age of 13.

In WhatsApp’s privacy policy, for example, over 20 per cent of its 11,052 words are complex and would take an 18 year old more than an hour to read, according to the study which uses readability tests to measure time taken and age required.

Many of the terms in privacy policies are also not understood by the users which agree to them. The term API, or Application Programming Interface appears four times on average in a social media privacy policy but 62 per cent of users say they do not know what it means, according to the study.

Cookies, third-party and IP address follow closely behind with 57 per cent, 53 per cent and 46 per cent of users not understanding their meaning respectively.

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