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    A Picture is Worth a Thousand Legal Terms
    Posted: 2011-08-30 06:03:25


    Visial Similie Symbol Icon Echoes - Thomas Pynchon Muted Post Horn Trystero Symbol - The Crying of Lot 49Your Grade 3 teacher was right: a picture is worth a thousand words. This truism has found traction in law, where images are being used more and more as visual aids in communicating the law. Although images themselves have no legal force, they are a powerful means of helping people without law degrees to understand their rights and responsibilities.

    Creative Commons, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a 'some-rights-reserved' copyright framework for artists around the world, has famously used images to represent creator and user rights. For example, to represent the requirement that creators be credited when their work is used, Creative Commons uses a pictogram of a person. To represent the requirement that the work not be used for commercial activity, a crossed-out dollar sign is used. You can see all of the symbols and what they mean on the Creative Commons website.

    Creative Commons writes "...since most creators, educators, and scientists are not in fact lawyers, we also make the licenses available in a format that normal people can read — the Commons Deed (also known as the “human readable” version of the license). The Commons Deed is a handy reference for licensors and licensees, summarizing and expressing some of the most important terms and conditions." These easy-to-understand licences are key components in the growth of amateur culture. No longer does one need a team of lawyers to publish works that make use of other works. Based on the success of such sites as ccMixter and Flickr's Creative Commons section, people are readily adopting and making use of these accessible licences.

    What if terms of use and privacy policies could be expressed in the same way? Technically, a long-winded privacy policy informs people in full of their privacy rights and responsibilities when using a service. However, these documents often take a very long time to read. Even I lose focus after a couple of minutes. My bet is that most people don't read any of the various privacy policies to which they might be subject - they simply click through it in order to be able to use the service they are trying to sign up for.

    Enter PrivacyChoice, an online-privacy firm whose new Mobile Policymaker project simplifies privacy policies through images. Where we now find long and practically unreadable text, Mobile Policymaker puts a list tabs with simple images accompanied by human-readable summaries of the main points of an app's privacy policy. The list breaks privacy policies into digestible bits that users will have an easy time understanding. Each tab links to the legal text applicable to that tab, so interested users can find out the full meaning of each point in the simplified policy. The images help users' brains remember the policy.

    As use of Mobile Policymaker grows, users will make stronger and stronger associations between the images and their privacy meanings. My hope is that Mobile Policymaker becomes an industry standard for all online services. What many technology firms often forget is that privacy policies are contracts, and that a contract's validity requires that both parties mutually understand its terms. While a reasonable user is capable of understanding a long-winded privacy policy (and therefore such a policy could hold up in court), learning one's rights as a user should not be a mind-numbing experience. As significant actors in our economies and social lives, firms should invest in simplifying their privacy policies so that they and consumers can realize a 'meeting of the minds'. Mobile Policymaker is exactly what the technology industry needs.

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