STSM Interview: What’s in a privacy notice?

We have all experienced this: we want to buy something online, register for an event or just look
for information, we go to a website and are asked to give our consent to the website privacy notices or
terms of services. Most of us click ‘agree’ on privacy notices without thinking much about it. Maybe you
just really want to see that recipe or video and don’t have time to think about what you are agreeing to.
But what is it that we are agreeing to? What do companies do with our data? The information that is
collected is of high value, because it’s personal information.

Something we are all familiar with at this point is that websites these days ask about privacy notices. This
is because websites want to collect data to use their services. Why is there a need for such documents?
After the institution of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in EU and EAA, most of us are faced
with legal text that should inform us of our rights -to object, to complain-, our privacy and how
our personal data is going to be processed. However, most of us are not experts on legal texts. These
online legal documents, such as privacy notices and terms of use, can be a difficult read for experts.

“Since there is no clear way to show transparency, usually you just accept the terms of services without
reading them. Transparency is important, because it concerns your rights. If you don’t read what you are
agreeing to, you are basically ignoring what is going to happen to your personal data.”

Alain Couillault proposes an ontology to evaluate online legal documents on an ethical standpoint. He
worked with the National Technical university of Athens during his Short Term Scientific Mission. They
scored websites’ legal documents on how the websites use their users’ data. Most websites analysed in
the research were in the field of language training.

The online legal documents were annotated and assigned values on three aspects: privacy,
empowerment and transparency. Privacy means that the website respects the privacy of the user.
Empowerment score shows how much power the user has, i.e., if the user can make decisions, for
example regarding transferring their data to another website. Transparency means being clear what is
done with the users’ data.

“Right now there is an imbalance of power. If you want to have an effect on the ethics of platforms, you
have to be aware of what is happening. So, the idea is to make the terms of services as transparent as
possible in privacy notices, to re-calibrate the balance of power between customer and companies. I
think that being transparent is also in the interest of the companies.”

Having more transparency in online legal documents would build a better mutual relationship between
the user and the companies. Couillault et al. hope that in the future there could be a global score and
privacy icons included in the documentation. There should be a way for the companies to easily inform
their customers of their data privacy and procession without legal documentation know-how.
Alain Couillault hopes to introduce the idea of privacy icons for online legal documents. He would also
like to find a global scoring for online legal documents in the future.

Before the Short Term Scientific Mission, Alain Couillault was working on the Legicrowd-project, during which
experts in law, mathematics and linguistics collaborated to design an ontology for the description of
online legal documents. They also built an open source environment for annotating these documents.
During his Short Term Scientific Mission, Couillault used this existing ontology to score online legal
documents from an ethical standpoint.

Alain Couillault visited the National Technical university of Athens for one week and his scientific report will be published on the LITHME website in Autumn 2022.
Alain Couillault was interviewed by LITHME assistant Enni Kuusela.

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