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Weekend reflection: The curious politics of privacy newspeak

By Simon Davies

My friend and colleague Robert Ellis Smith was kind enough recently to reprint my “twenty privacy principles that they never taught you at school” blog in his excellent US publication Privacy Journal. I’ve subsequently received a few messages suggesting that I should consider writing about the new language of privacy.

This is a superb idea. The principles do touch briefly on the new vocabulary of privacy. For example they warn that privacy is under greatest threat whenever government says it wants to “modernise” privacy protections, while in the corporate world the expression “enhancing the user experience” is a euphemism for increased customer surveillance.

Thus “productivity” had to become “performance”,  “output” turned into “targets” and micro management became “team building”

Meanwhile, it advises, responsible organisations describe privacy as a “right”, unaware ones talk of it as a “value” and bad players lambast it as an “interest”.

Organisations can’t help re-engineering language. They’ve done so throughout history and they often do so in an attempt to sidestep negative imagery. Thus “productivity” had to become “performance”,  “output” turned into “targets” and “micro management” became “team building”.

However it is the language of contracts that’s most entertaining. Consider the simple conditional word “may”. These days “may” replaces the traditional phrase “reserves the right to”. For example, the current Apple policy states that the company “may share this personal information” where in the past it would have stated “reserves the right to disclose this personal information.” This is because “may” is a more neutral, process-like word that doesn’t infer corporate power over the customer. Of course almost no contract ever uses the blunt but honest expression “will”.

companies never “comply” with demands to disclose personal information to agencies, they “respond” to them.

Of equal interest is the term “share”, which hardly existed in contracts until fifteen years ago. “Share” means “disclose”, but it’s a far warmer word because it indicates a mutual benefit and mutual agreement. Thus companies “share” personal information with law enforcement agencies, while customers “share” it with companies. On that theme, companies never “comply” with demands to disclose personal information to agencies, they “respond” to them. Thus everyone’s happy, apparently.

Softening and neutralising language is important to organisations, particularly in cases where the topic in hand is potentially controversial. “Retention” and “preservation” sound more benign than “storing” and “archiving” while “geo-location” was replaced by the warmer and more consumer-focused expression “location based services”. Meanwhile, “external” shifted to “third party”, and “partners” was replaced by the more familiar and inclusive expression “family.”

The popular 1980’s expression “data matching” gave way a decade later to the less brutal term “data sharing” and this then transmogrified in the last decade to the more neutral word “linking”.

These replacements often occur over a span of a few years, but occasionally they shift over decades. The popular 1980’s expression “data matching” gave way a decade later to the less brutal term “data sharing” which then transmogrified in the last decade to the more neutral word “linking”. For much the same reason “export of data for processing” was shortened to “data transfer”, and in the same vein companies no longer “sell” your data in the event of a corporate acquisition, they conduct a “transfer”. It’s all about making the customers feel they have some protection and control.

“Restrict” is another useful expression, much overused these days, as it provides the impression of control over what a company does with your data, while actually meaning relatively little at any practical level. And of course while you can’t “discriminate” amongst your customer base, you can “customise”.

One clause in the PayPal privacy policy embraces several of these new terms:

“we will collect and disclose your information to external parties unless you object” simply became “opt-out”.

“Federal and state laws allow you to restrict the sharing of your personal information in certain instances. However, these laws also state that you cannot restrict other types of sharing. Because we have chosen to refrain from certain types of data sharing, the only type of sharing of your personal information that you may restrict is as follows…”

Of course some phrases have been invented to present a neutral spin on what could be seen as a hostile process. For example “we will collect and disclose your information to external parties unless you object” simply became “opt-out”.

So it continues. The advent of “plain language” contracts and policies has been a tremendous step forward in terms of allowing customers to understand the meaning of complex legal terms, but the downside is that they often leave the reader just as uncertain about what’s really going on with their information.