Document Startup Tracks Changes to Online Privacy Policies

social networks, social media, online privacy, user privacy, privacy policies, terms of serviceDocracy, a startup that uses version-tracking to facilitate the exchange of legal documents, has begun tracking websites’ terms of service, motivated by the dust-up over Instagram’s changes to its privacy policy.

“There is already a lot of scrutiny on the privacy policies of the largest sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. However, other sites are able to ‘fly under the radar,’ effecting changes to their policies that may catch their users unawares,” the company said on its blog.

Operational since late January, the tracker monitors 953 sites using the same kind of Web crawlers Google Search does. On the landing page is a list of site’s whose policies have most recently changed. Users can expand each listing to get an overview of the changes and a blow-by-blow account of the language that has changed.

Privacy experts greeted the site with enthusiasm.

“Oh man, I think it’s great,” said Sarah Downey, a privacy attorney at Abine, a privacy-focused software company.

“It’s definitely a win for users to have a clear, simple, one-stop shop for privacy policy changes. To say it’s tough to stay on top of privacy policies is an understatement,” Downey said, citing a study that found that Internet users would have to spend 40 minutes a day reading privacy policies in order to read all that applied to them.

“It makes sense that [the problem] ultimately requires a technology solution: humans simply can’t keep up with privacy policies,” she said.

Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s consumer privacy project, said he planned to add a bookmark to the site.

“This site seems to do a great job of highlighting the changes and appears to be a powerful resource for consumers who want to stay informed,” he said.

But Docracy’s tracker leaves some aspects of online privacy unaddressed.

“The limitation is that privacy policies rarely describe in detail what the companies are actually doing, but instead what the companies want to reserve the right to do,” Brookman said.

Sometimes, privacy policies also seem to promise the company won’t share user data in particular ways, when the company does in fact share the data. Such deceptive practices are illegal, with enforcement dependent on investigations by the Federal Trade Commission.

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