It’s unlikely that many news consumers will read the fine print that comes with the splashy rebranding from MSNBC.com to NBCNews.com.
I caught up with our good friend Jeff Hermes, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, to make sense of the differences between the old policy and the new one. For one thing, NBC News has removed users’ ability to opt out of targeted advertising.
“It’s this continuous tension between what needs to be said and not saying too much.”
“Microsoft explicitly talks about ways to opt out of that kind of advertising,” Hermes said. “They give you the option of opting out of receiving targeted ads. They specifically identify third-party ad networks that they work with, and give you links to see if those networks offer opt-outs. That information isn’t included in the NBCNews.com policy. NBCNews.com does have a clause saying you can send a request asking that they stop using the information they’ve gathered about you, but it’s not an opt-out. If you request that they stop using your information, great, but that applies only to information you’ve provided before, and if you want them to stop using your information completely you have to stop using the site.”
“I actually found it interesting, and a good thing, that NBC was specifically disclosing facts about the interactions of social media sites with their sites,” Hermes said. “I didn’t see something comparable about Microsoft’s policy.”
Another area where NBC News exhibited “some degree of thoroughness and thinking” was with regard to children’s privacy issues. Whereas many websites deal only with children under 13 — in order to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act — NBCNews.com also addresses teenagers’ privacy.
(I’m sure that proviso will lead to millions of parent-child bonding moments over the minutia of website small print.)
There are some areas of the new privacy that raise questions, like a section that says NBCNews.com may collect information from use of “wireless applications” like mobile apps. That piqued Hermes’ interest because the language isn’t “terribly specific.” Another question: The omission of a reference to “web beacons” — which Microsoft’s policy explains as a way to help count and track site visitors — from the old policy to the new one.
Both policies are jargon-rich at times. But where NBCNews.com is less specific than Microsoft, Hermes suspects it’s at least in part an attempt to be strike a more comprehensible tone.
“Again, Microsoft contains more technical detail, but the NBC policy nevertheless might be more accessible to the general reader,” he said. “There are pros and cons to either approach, so long as you can provide the user meaningful information. It’s this continuous tension between what needs to be said and not saying too much.”
Hermes has been working with these kinds of policies for quite some time now, and they’ve gone from being relatively simple explanations to complicated legalese. Gradually, as policies expanded, they began to “look more like complicated user contracts” than disclosures. There has been a push to again simplify them, but it’s not easy. Hermes said there’s still more he’d like to see in the NBCNews.com policy.