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Lost in the Fine Print: It Would Take a Week to Read All Your Privacy Policies

It would take the average American about 42 hours -- an entire work week -- to read the online privacy policies for the Web-sites they encounter each year, according to new research being presented this weekend.

The finding out of Carnegie Mellon University undermines the arguments of Web companies who say that federal online privacy legislation is unnecessary because Internet firms will compete to ensure privacy.

For such competition to work, people would have to read and understand privacy policies.

"What we're seeing is that's not going to happen," said Lorrie Faith Cranor, a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who did the research with PhD student Aleecia McDonald. "We don't believe for a minute that anyone is going to spend that much time reading privacy policies. Anyone who taken time to read one privacy policy, knows how time consuming it is and they say, 'Never again'."

The Federal Trade Commission is working on voluntary guidelines for Internet privacy, and Google, Microsoft and other companies have argued that self-regulation and competition is the course to follow. But critics have argued that legislation is necessary because so many consumers are uninformed.

Using figures from Nielsen Online, McDonald and Cranor estimated that the average American comes across 253 Web-sites a year. It takes about 10 minutes to read the typical 2,500 word privacy policy for a Web-site. That yields an annual required reading time of 42 hours, according to the research.

By Peter Whoriskey  |  September 26, 2008; 12:12 PM ET
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