Sam Williams | April 16, 2020
New technology, new laws, and high-profile data breaches are making privacy a greater concern to the public. Trust is more important than ever — but New Zealanders aren’t sure who they trust. In a 2018 survey, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that only one-third of New Zealanders trusted companies with their personal information, while two-thirds trusted government organisations.
It’s easy to just see privacy as a law you have to comply with, and write your privacy statement accordingly. It’s a legal requirement, so you use the language of the law. But your privacy statement isn’t for lawyers or regulators — it’s for your customers.
Think of your privacy statement as a way to fulfil a consumer right, rather than a legal box to tick. Your goal is to help your customers understand what you’ll do with their personal information. It’s perfectly possible to write for your readers while still complying with the law.
In our experience, some agencies use needlessly complex language because they’re worried they’ll scare customers. For example, we’ve seen agencies that are reluctant to clearly state who they share personal information with, or that they store personal information in cloud servers overseas.
We’ve heard a common explanation: ‘What we do may be common and legal, but our customers don’t know that. If we tell our customers, they’ll think we’re doing something unusual or unacceptable.’
This approach may backfire when your customers find out you’re doing something with their information that they didn’t expect. And if what you’re doing sounds off-putting when you explain it clearly, it could be a sign that you need to reconsider your practices.
If you give your customers enough clarity and context to understand what you’ll do with their personal information, you may avoid surprising or upsetting them later.
Actively tell your customers how you’ll collect and use their information, and you’ll actively earn their trust. Whenever you collect personal information on your website, clearly explain what you’ll use it for, and where your customers can learn more.
Below is an example that shows how you can use language and formatting to obscure or reveal privacy practices.
To download the document, you have to subscribe to the mailing list. But that isn’t immediately obvious in this image. At first glance, you may think you just have to enter your email address. The only mention of subscribing is in significantly smaller text, underneath the main messages and the download button.
The term ‘subscriber database’ is quite vague. And it says you can unsubscribe at any time, but it doesn’t actually tell you how to unsubscribe. Readers might also want to know where they can learn more.
Below is the same example, changed to be more privacy-friendly.
It’s becoming impossible to take part in day-to-day life without giving up more and more personal information. As a result, people may feel overwhelmed by dense privacy policies and find it harder to make informed choices.
You can help your customers by making it as easy as possible to understand how you collect and use their information. In return, your customers will reward you with their trust, and their business.
Register for our legal writing workshop to learn evidence-based principles for writing legal documents in plain language.
Read our recent blog post on how clear language can help institutions win back trust.
Our blog also has plenty of tips to help you write in plain language while still being legally sound.