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May 20, 2001 - Language of Privacy - 2002-01-31

MUSIC: "Every Breath You Take"/The Police

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster -- the language of privacy. Privacy is a hot topic in America right now. The traditional fear of government as "Big Brother" -- the term used by George Orwell in his book "Nineteen-Eighty-Four" -- is giving way increasingly to fear of Big Business. Many people worry about companies collecting and sharing the most personal of details, including health and financial information.

RS: This year, for the first time, banks and other financial institutions must disclose their policies for sharing personal information for marketing and other purposes. The requirement is part of a new law permitting more kinds of mergers within the financial industry. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act says financial institutions must disclose their policies in "clear and conspicuous terms" -- and they must give people the option to "opt out."

AA: In other words, information will be shared unless customers "opt out" and say, "no." Millions and millions of privacy notices are making their way through the mail by the July first deadline. But should it really take a college education to understand them?

RS: No, say critics like Mark Hochhauser, a psychologist who helps companies to simplify documents. He says many privacy notices are far too complicated for the general public.


HOCHHAUSER: "I don't want to sound like I'm bashing lawyers, because I know there are many lawyers who do try to write in plain English and do a good job of it. But very often what takes precedence is to try to protect the organization from being sued. So lawyers will write these documents as though the audience is other lawyers instead of average consumers. Here's one from a bank in Connecticut and this is what they say on the opt-out form that you have to fill out and send back to the bank. It says, 'If you choose not to exercise your option to opt-out of sharing, no action is required.'"

RS: "What does that mean?"

HOCHHAUSER: "In real English what that means is, 'If you want us to continue sharing information, don't do anything.' It's really tortured English, and I suspect that most people when they see this won't really know, 'Am I supposed to fill out this form or not?' And so they'll probably throw it away and not fill it out. From the standpoint of plain English, most of these brochures fail on all counts, and I don't know whether it's being cynical or realistic, but the net result is that the banks are in technical compliance with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, but the net result is that it's not going to change the way information is being used."

RS: "Wouldn't this just be obvious, if you want somebody to read your document, you don't use long sentences and you don't use unfamiliar words?"

HOCHHAUSER: "You would think so. And people who study literacy and reading and understanding have made those suggestions, but somehow the materials still keep coming out in ways where there are too many long sentences and too many unfamiliar words."

AA: Readability expert Mark Hochhauser says privacy notices are often murky about what information companies are actually sharing -- and what customers can do about it.


HOCHHAUSER: "They're not very up-front about saying 'you have certain privacy rights as a customer and here's what rights you have.' So it's a little bit misleading to expect people who are getting something called a 'privacy notice' to understand that it really refers to the privacy rights that they have."

AA: "So chances are they're just going to toss it into the trash."

HOCHHAUSER: "Many people will. If they look at it, they will find that often there are not only problems with readability, in the sense that they use complicated language, but the legibility of many of these documents is very difficult. What I mean by that is, they often use small type, sometimes referred to as 'mouseprints,' I guess like the footprint of a mouse. The type is small, it's crammed together, sometimes you have very long paragraphs with many lines in them, so it's very easy to get to the end of the line you're reading and then you get lost when you try to come back and find the beginning of the next line."

AA: Mark Hochhauser reviewed seventeen notices for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. His findings appear on the group's Web site, at www-dot-privacyrights-dot-o-r-g.

RS: That's all for Wordmaster. Next week, meet a singing medical school professor who will leave you in stitches! With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Every Breath You Take"