Privacy Statement

November 21, 2014 3:30 pm

It’s a story that makes the headlines in some shape or form every other week: concerns about an IT company possibly breaching their users’ privacy. This week, the company in the centre of the storm was Uber, the trendy taxi-app. In what he thought was a private conversation, Uber executive Emil Michael suggested his company could easily expose sensitive information about journalists who target his company. In a later statement, Michael apologised for these remarks: “The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”

Privacy StatementThis week the waves of privacy panic hit Uber, but next week it will probably be someone else. This is a direct consequence of the way in which online privacy is regulated. Because of the global nature of the web, there are no overarching rules that apply to each company. Instead, every platform has its own set of rules, collected in a privacy statement. That’s the term we’ve chosen for this week’s IATE Term of the Week.

IATE defines this term as a “statement, typically on a website, giving details of personal data which is collected and the uses to which it is put”. The terminology itself already gives us an insight into the core of the problem. We’re not talking about rules or conditions, but merely a statement. It is no more than a document in which a company tells us what they do with our data, but whenever it suits them to change this policy they’re perfectly entitled to do so. All major IT services, from Uber to Facebook or Google, have at some point attracted controversy for making unilateral changes to their privacy statement. When faced with such changes, the consumer has got only two real choices: accept the changes or stop using the service.

Some critics say this problem is borne out of the fundamental setup of the web. One of them is Aral Balkan, who argues that as long as the companies are the ones storing all the users’ data on their servers, they hold all the cards when it comes to privacy. But this disctinction between servers and users is key to how the world wide web works. That’s why Balkan is currently building a completely new solution: a social network that’s not based on web servers. Instead, data will be stored on the users’ own computers, who can then choose to share it horizontally with other users or devices using peer-to-peer technology. At no point will any company or organisation have the power to collect all their users’ data and store it on a centralised server. As with all new technologies though, it will take Balkan a while to prove the world that his solution is durable.

So right now, it’s hard to predict where this will end. Maybe traditional web companies will find a way to restore trust in their services. Maybe new peer-to-peer technologies will prove so powerful that they make the whole discussion irrelevant. The only thing we can do is to keep our eyes and ears open, and make our own decisions as well-informed consumers.

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by Brecht Savelkoul

Communications Trainee at TermCoord

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