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July 17, 2012, 1:56 p.m.
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For NBCNews.com, a new website comes with new privacy standards

The website formerly known as MSNBC.com no longer promises to let users opt out of targeted advertising.

It’s unlikely that many news consumers will read the fine print that comes with the splashy rebranding from MSNBC.com to NBCNews.com.

The new website’s privacy policy was adopted to “align with NBC Universal standards in privacy,” the network’s chief digital officer, Vivian Schiller, told me. “If you go through it with a fine-toothed comb, I don’t think you’ll find it much different,” she said.

But there are a few key things about the changing privacy policy that you should know.

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.”

Another key difference involves changes to the privacy policy itself. Microsoft explicitly says that upon changing its privacy policy, it will “notify you either by prominently posting a notice of such changes prior to implementing the change or by directly sending you a notification.” NBCNews.com doesn’t rule that out, but it doesn’t make any specific promises either. From the NBCNews.com policy:

Any changes to this Privacy Policy will become effective upon posting of the revised Privacy Policy on the Internet, accessible through this Website.

“In other words, ‘If we decide to make material changes, what we’re going to do is change this document,'” Hermes said. “They have the option, if they want, of making material changes to the privacy policy and the only thing they do to inform people is changing the policy itself. They say they might — they could — post a notice on the homepage but they’re not committing to do that.”

Overall, Microsoft’s policy is more thorough and technically specific, Hermes says. But he points out there are areas of the NBCNews.com policy that merit praise. For example, it features a section detailing data collected by social media plugins. From the privacy policy:

If you interact with us through a social media platform, plug-in etc. then you may be permitting us to have on-going access to some limited information from your social network profile (such as name, email address, photo, gender, location, the people/sites you follow etc.). If you don’t want the social network to collect the information about you described above, or to share it with us and other third parties, please review the privacy policy of the relevant social network and/or log out of the relevant social network before you visit our Website. As with other sites, you may be able delete any existing cookies placed on your computer by the social network via your browser.

“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.

If you are between the ages of 13 and 18, please be sure to read this Privacy Policy with your parent and obtain his or her permission before you submit or post any Personal Information, and before you use any features of this Website.

(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.

“I would like to see a little more detail about what information they’re intending to collect through wireless applications,” he said. I would like to see an opt-out in terms of use of information for behavioral marketing, and I would like to see more robust notification in terms of modifications to the policy…It’s not like either company is going out of its way to say, ‘We’re never going to use your information.'”

POSTED     July 17, 2012, 1:56 p.m.
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