Got the privacy policy writing blues? Here’s what we did to make everyone happy.

Muddy Waters never had the Privacy Policy Writing Blues

Muddy Waters never had the Privacy Policy Writing Blues

Last night I drank a really nice craft beer, cranked the air conditioning up way high, dimmed my tablet, and crawled into bed with a lovely web privacy policy.

No, sorry, I sure did not.

Now that I’ve begun to explore privacy policies from a web content writing angle, I wish I could say that I’d crawled into bed with a good one. But the truth is, privacy policies pretty much universally suck.

Why they suck is a little complex, but it basically boils down to websites having to be transparent about data collection practices they’d rather not discuss.

Think of the disclaimer you’d find at a shooting range (the one that says they’re not responsible if you decapitate yourself with an Uzi.) It’s only there because it has to be.

But unlike that disclaimer, which is short and sweet, website privacy policies tend to stand out for their torpor-inducing, abstraction-filled legalese, which, in full flower, is almost a form of reading torture. If they’re in maximum obfuscation mode, like Facebook’s 4,200-word policy, they can even demand more brain power to decipher than Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

Facebook’s privacy policy: in between Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, from the  New York Times’ Privacy Project .

Facebook’s privacy policy: in between Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, from the New York Times’ Privacy Project.

Couple that with tiny font sizes and lack of styling, hierarchy or voice, and you’ve got a document that is literally designed not to be read.

This is not just a shame. It’s actually dangerous.

Because, as we point out in our own lovely, handcrafted privacy policy, the rabbit hole of Internet privacy is deep and dark. Having no idea of its contours or dimensions isn’t something you can afford either as a web reader or a web writer. At some point you’ll have to take a look under the hood.

Which brings us to the main problem of website privacy policies: the writing under the hood.

Granted, privacy policies are usually written by lawyers, and we don’t expect lawyers to write Dan Brown novels. But then again, should lawyers be writing the final versions of the privacy policies that end up on our websites?

Short answer: No, they shouldn’t. You should write them—at least the final versions—and here’s why.

The rabbit hole of Internet privacy is deep and dark. Having no idea of its contours or dimensions isn’t something you can afford either as a web reader or a web writer.

Why you should write your own website privacy policies

You educate yourself


Writing the nuts and bolts of a privacy policy gives you the chance to educate yourself on what kind of user data is actually being collected and how when users interact with a website you’re writing.

You work towards a more transparent web

Users should be able to understand privacy policies without their lawyers. This is a basic web right. Designing user-centered privacy policies is advocating in a hands-on way for a more transparent web.

You create a more consistent user experience

Carrying the voice of a website over into content that ordinarily remains unbranded means you're creating a more consistent user experience, which your readers will appreciate and maybe even enjoy.

And that is more winning than Charlie Sheen and a brick of Colombian nose whisky.

Plus, if you’re a web writer, crafting an original, user-friendly privacy policy is a billable service—as long as you do your research and aren’t writing for a media behemoth like the New York Times, which, we’re guessing, actually needs a legal team to write its privacy policy. 

Some of what you’ll learn is actually eye-opening. Like the fact that Google collects and stores heaps of our data, but doesn’t give it to anyone else (unless you ask them to or a government has a legitimate reason to ask them to), while Facebook deals in data like Jawas deal in used droid parts

Maybe you knew that users actually have the right to have their data wiped clean from the websites they visit, or given to them in a file so they can see exactly what you’ve collected about them. I didn’t—not before I started researching website privacy policies.

Writing the nuts and bolts of a privacy policy gives you a chance to educate yourself on what kind of user data is being collected and how when users interact with a website you’re writing.

How to write a privacy policy that’s easy to understand

Can you write a privacy policy all by yourself?

Probably not, unless you’re Edward Snowden. So we don’t recommend attempting it.

What you can do, in lieu of hiring a lawyer (or sending Edward Snowden an encrypted fan email), is this.

1

Figure out what kind of information has to be on the privacy policy you’re writing.

Unless you’re writing a website for a company that deals in information (media, tech, etc.), this should be pretty straightforward. We’re talking about the types of data your website collects, the instruments it uses to collect it, why it’s collecting data and how that data will be used.

For our website, for instance, we use Google Analytics, the Facebook pixel and MailChimp.

We use Google Analytics to tell us who’s visiting our site. We use the Facebook pixel to tell us who’s responding to our ad campaigns, and we use MailChimp to keep track of who’s opening our emails.

This, in a nutshell, is visitor tracking, and we don’t get much more sophisticated than that. If you do, you may need to journey further down the privacy rabbit hole to explain it to your readers.

Finally, and maybe even more important for anyone using the websites you write, you’ll need to lay out your users’ data rights and give them a place to contact you in case they have questions.


2

See what’s out there.

Once you know what you need to write, take a look at other reputable websites offering similar services to the one you’re writing and see how they do it. Locate the content you need (from your checklist above), identify the main ideas, check them against GDPR standards, and rewrite them from the ground up in your own voice. 

Chances are, chunks of any policy you find online will have much in common with the policies of most other websites you’ve interacted with, because, for the most part, that content is the same.


3

Make it pretty.

Finally, lay your privacy policy out like you would any web text: so that readers can read it. Use headers and hierarchy, color highlights and sections, and make sure the line widths are set to 85 characters (with spaces) or below and the font size is big enough to read comfortably.

Users should be able to understand privacy policies without their lawyers. This is a basic web right. Designing user-centered privacy policies is advocating in a hands-on way for a more transparent web.

Privacy policy generators? Read this first.

If learning about Internet privacy and writing user-friendly content don’t speak to you, you can always create a privacy policy with an online privacy policy generator. (We’re not putting any links up because we’ve never used one and so can’t vouch for any of them.)

But, if you want to crawl into bed with an informative, branded, user-centered privacy policy that can compete with a Dan Brown novel (we’re just saying), you’ll have to read ours.

Here’s how you should do it.

Crack open your favorite IPA, crank the air conditioning way up, set your tablet to night mode and click here.


Links to further reading

If you want to check out how the websites and platforms you use ever day score in terms of user rights, without reading their unreadable privacy policies, you’ll like Terms of Service Didn’t Read, a website dedicated to Internet privacy transparency.


When Max Sheridan isn't drinking IPAs or curling up in bed with privacy policies, he designs comeback campaigns for Nicolas Cage. (What, you don't think he needs a comeback campaign?) His second novel Hubble is coming fall 2020 from Run Amok Books. Talk to Max at your own risk here.