28 Nov 2014

Facebook, Twitter told: be clear about how data used

Social networks must simplify terms and conditions, to ensure that their users are clear over how their personal data will be collected and used, MPs say.

MPs have criticised the “opaque, literary style” of many social networks’ terms and conditions documents, suggesting that they “are drafted for use in American courtrooms” rather than clearly explaining to users what will happen to their data.

Terms and conditions have become so impenetrable in some cases that “no reasonable person” can expect to understand them, the report added.

The report by the Commons science and technology committee called for the British government to work with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on new guidelines for how social media companies should explain their data collection policies.

“The terms and conditions currently favoured by many organisations are lengthy and filled with jargon,” the report said, insisting it should use language that ordinary users understand.

‘Time to draw a line’

The report singled out Facebook’s experiment, details of which emerged earlier this summer, which saw it manipulate stories shown in 689,000 users’ news feeds, to see if it could affect their emotional state. The company later conceded that things could be “done differently”

Science and technology committee chair Andrew Miller said: “Facebook’s experiment with users’ emotions highlighted serious concerns about the extent to which, ticking the terms and conditions box, can be said to constitute informed consent when it comes to the varied ways data is now being used by many websites and apps.”

“Let’s face it, most people click yes to terms and conditions contracts without reading them, because they are often laughably long and written in the kind of legalese you need a law degree from the USA to understand”.

But it was not just social media. The committee also criticised the government’s handling of plans to compile patients’ medical records on a centralised database under the controversial care.data project, which encountered huge opposition from patients’ rights groups and doctors over privacy.

It said the project was “a clear example where this trusted relationship failed to develop”. Mr Miller said: “Whilst we expect the government to be encouraging others to meet high standards, we also want to see it lead by example.

“The government cannot dictate to others, when its own services – like care.data piloted by the NHS – have been found to be less than adequate.

“The government must audit all public sector online services and ensure that they provide easy to understand information about their usage of personal data.”