Can you write a privacy policy that’s clear and transparent? Pinterest did.

Facebook has clearly demonstrated how not to explain complex privacy questions. It committed the principal sin of privacy: it surprised its users. By contrast, Pinterest’s policy is a model, not just for privacy, but for simple language about technically complex subjects.

You can see Pinterest’s policy here. What I like about it is that it’s easily understandable and makes sense — you read it and feel you understand why they are doing what they are doing. It appears to be written by and for normal human beings; while I’m certain lawyers reviewed this, it sure doesn’t look like they wrote it.

While it’s not short — it weighs in at 3,600 words — it’s clearly organized.

Here’s how it starts:

Thank you for using Pinterest!

Here’s a preview of the new Privacy Policy that’ll go live on May 1, 2018.

Our mission is to help you discover and do what you love. To do that, we show you personalized content and ads we think you’ll be interested in based on information we collect from you and third parties. We only use that information where we have a proper legal basis for doing so.

We wrote this policy to help you understand what information we collect, how we use it and what choices you have about it. Because we’re an internet company, some of the concepts below are a little technical, but we’ve tried our best to explain things in a simple and clear way. We welcome your questions and comments on this policy.

Commentary: Any document like this should start by explaining its own existence. Note how Pinterest starts, not by talking about what it does, but by talking about why it does it. This reassures readers about motives. And it describes ads in the first paragraph, rather than concealing or downplaying what’s really going on.

We collect information in a few different ways:

1. When you give it to us or give us permission to obtain it

When you sign up for or use Pinterest, you give us certain information voluntarily. This includes your name, email address, phone number, profile photo, Pins, comments, and any other information you give us. You can also choose to share with us location data or photos. If you buy something on Pinterest, we collect payment information, contact information (address and phone number) and details of what you bought. If you buy something for someone else on Pinterest, we collect their delivery details and contact information.

If you link your Facebook or Google account or accounts from other third party services to Pinterest, we also get information from those accounts (such as your friends or contacts). The information we get from those services depends on your settings and their privacy policies, so please check what those are.

2. We also get technical information when you use Pinterest

Whenever you use any website, mobile application or other internet service, certain information gets created and logged automatically. The same is true when you use Pinterest. Here are some of the types of information we collect:

  • Log data. When you use Pinterest, our servers record information (“log data”), including information that your browser automatically sends whenever you visit a website, or that your mobile app automatically sends when you’re using it. This log data includes your Internet Protocol address, the address of and activity on websites you visit that incorporate Pinterest features (like the “Save” button—more details below), searches, browser type and settings, the date and time of your request, how you used Pinterest, cookie data and device data. If you’d like, you can get more details on the types of information we collect in our logs.
  • Cookie data. We also use “cookies” (small text files sent by your computer each time you visit our website, unique to your Pinterest account or your browser) or similar technologies to capture log data. When we use cookies or other similar technologies, we use session cookies (that last until you close your browser) or persistent cookies (that last until you or your browser delete them). For example, we use cookies to store your language preferences or other settings so you don‘t have to set them up every time you visit Pinterest. Some of the cookies we use are associated with your Pinterest account (including information about you, such as the email address you gave us) and other cookies are not. For more detailed information about how we use cookies, please review our Cookies Policy.
  • Device information. In addition to log data, we collect information about the device you’re using Pinterest on, including type of device, operating system, settings, unique device identifiers and crash data that helps us understand when something breaks. Whether we collect some or all of this information often depends on what type of device you’re using and its settings. For example, different types of information are available depending on whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, or an iPhone or Android phone. To learn more about what information your device makes available to us, please also check the policies of your device manufacturer or software provider.

3. Our partners and advertisers share information with us

We also get information about you and your activity outside Pinterest from our affiliates, advertisers, partners and other third parties we work with, or other publicly available sources. For example:

  • Some websites or apps use Pinterest features such as our “Save” button, or you may install our “Save” button for your browser. If so, we collect log data from those sites or apps. Learn more about these features.
  • Online advertisers or third parties share information with us to measure or improve the performance of ads on Pinterest, or to figure out what kinds of ads to show you. This includes information about your visits to an advertiser’s site or purchases you made from them, or information about your interests from a third party service, which we might use to help show you ads. Learn more about the types of information advertisers or other third parties share with us.

Commentary: Read this and there is no confusion about what data Pinterest collects. And the third section here describes how Pinterest collects data when you are off the site, the question that tripped up Mark Zuckerberg in his testimony before Congress.

The policy goes on to describe how Pinterest uses the data it collects, how you can change the way it can collect data, who they share it with, and how long they keep it. For example, here’s how it talks about advertising:

We have a legitimate interest in delivering ads that are relevant, interesting and personal to you in order to generate revenue (providing this Service is expensive!) To further these interests we use the information we collect to:

  • Decide which ads to show you. For example, if you show an interest in camping tents on Pinterest, we may show you ads for other outdoor products. We customize the ad content we show you by identifying your interests based on your onsite and offsite activities, as well as by using information we receive from ad partners or other third parties. Where we use cookies to identify your offsite interests, we will obtain consent where required as described in more detail below. Where ad partners or other third parties share information with us about you, we rely on the consent they have obtained.

  • Tell our ad partners how their Pinterest ads are doing, and how to make them better. Some of this information is aggregated. For example, we would report to an advertiser that a certain percentage of people who viewed a Promoted Pin went on to visit that advertiser’s site. In other instances, this information isn’t aggregated. For example, we would let an advertiser know that a particular Promoted Pin has been saved by certain people. To find out more about reporting on Promoted Pins, please visit the Help Center.

  • Tell our ad partners the types of products you might be interested in. For example, if you create a board dedicated to sneakers, we can tell a retailer that you’re more interested in sneakers than, say, sweaters. This helps us and our ad partners to make sure that the content and ads you see are relevant to you.

Commentary: There’s no mystery about how the advertising works. The examples make what’s going on a lot clearer.

Here’s how they talk about your control of the information:

Choices you have about your info:

Our goal is to give you simple and meaningful choices regarding your information. If you have a Pinterest account, many of the choices you have on Pinterest are built directly into Pinterest or your settings. For example, you can:

  • Edit information in your profile at any time, decide whether your profile is available to search engines, or choose whether others can find your Pinterest account using your email address.
  • Link or unlink your Pinterest account from other services (like Facebook, Google or Twitter). For some services (like Facebook), you can also decide whether or not to publish your Pinterest activity to that service.
  • Create or be added to a secret board. Secret boards are visible to you and other collaborators in the board, and any collaborator may choose to make the board available to anyone else. For example, another collaborator can invite someone else to the board, make the board available to an app they use to view Pinterest, or even just take an image from the board and email it to their friends. For more information about secret boards, please visit our Help Center.
  • Choose whether Pinterest will be customized for you using information from other websites or apps. If you have a Pinterest account and want to control how your offsite data is used to tailor your experience, you can visit your settings and update your “Personalization” preferences. If you don’t have a Pinterest account or don’t want us to customize Pinterest for you when you’re signed out, you can opt out.
  • Choose whether your purchases on Pinterest will be used to customize recommendations and ads for you. You can view and manage your purchase history by going to “Order history” in your settings and if you hide a purchase from your history, we won’t use it to customize Pinterest for you.
  • Close your account at any time. When you close your account, we’ll deactivate it and remove your Pins and boards from Pinterest. . . .

In addition to the examples provided above, we offer other choices that you can learn more about in our Help Center.

Lessons from Pinterest: Behavior matters. Language matters, too.

Here’s what you can learn from this.

First of all, your company makes a lot of decisions about what it does with people’s information. You probably have a privacy policy. But the first question to ask is: what are the principles behind what you are doing? If you follow your own principles, you should have no trouble articulating what those principles are, and publishing them in a public way so that employees, users, and business partners can all understand what they are. This is what Pinterest has done.

If your principles are something you are proud of, you can do this, too. Reducing it to simple language is hard work, but will be possible. If your principles are not something to be proud of, or if your people don’t actually follow them, then no amount of plan language can save you.

Second, consider organizing what you communicate to users in the same clear way that Pinterest did: This is why we do what we do; this is what we do; this is how it works; here are the choices you have. Pinterest’s policy is organized in clearly delineated sections that makes this easy to follow.

Third, see if you can reduce technical terminology to clear language. Pinterest’s policy is at exactly the right level. It explains terms like cookies without being condescending. And it uses examples. This works way better than either technical or legal precision that’s opaque to most readers.

What about Facebook?

I looked at the analogous page on Facebook. Where I’d give Pinterest an A+, Facebook gets a B-. It’s not bad, but it could be better.

First off, it doesn’t start with why. It’s there, but not at the start.

Second, it’s full of legal language that interferes with the clarity.

And third, it’s divided into sub-pages instead of sections, which makes it hard to navigate.

One more thing. Pinterest uses and airy design and large type. Facebook’s design is cramped and the text is small. It’s a minor choice, but it contributes to the Facebook user’s perhaps justifiable sense of paranoia.

7 responses to “Can you write a privacy policy that’s clear and transparent? Pinterest did.

  1. I completely agree, Josh.
    Oscar Hammerstein described his lyrics as the product of “hard-fought simplicity.” That’s what it took to create Pinterest’s privacy statement. Only a fellow writer who loathes bullshit can understand how hard it is to make corporate writing sound this natural.

  2. My pet peeve, found in almost all financial companies policies, is this in the Q&A:
    Question: Why can’t I limit all sharing?
    Answer: Federal law gives you the right to limit only:
    Sharing for affiliates’ everyday business purposes — information about your creditworthiness
    Affiliates from using your information to market to you
    Sharing for nonaffiliates to market to you
    State laws and individual companies may give you additional rights to limit sharing. See below for more on your rights under state law.

    This is factually correct, but written to give you the impression that not being able to opt out is somehow a gov’t imposed limitation, when a more honest answer is “Because we don’t have to let you, and we receive higher profits by sharing your data. We’re going to share as much data as possible, within the weak rules established by the government, regardless of what you’d like.”

  3. I agree by the standards of the computer industry, Pinterest has done an excellent job in writing a clear privacy policy. I ran the document through StyleWriter – the plain English editor. It showed that it scored an excellent rating for Average Sentence (17.7), Passive Verbs and the Bog Index (overall rating for the document). It scored a good rating for Plain English style faults and Jargon, and 10 (fairly easy) for Reading Grade.

    However, the program still highlighted 233 style issues in the 3,536-word document. For example, it found 24 passive verbs, 11 long sentences, 18 difficult sentences and 17 wordy sentences. Using StyleWriter shows that even well-written documents can be better with comprehensive editing.

    And StyleWriter even pointed out the inconsistent spelling of ‘reorganisation’ (customization, depersonalize) used elsewhere in the document.

    I strongly believe StyleWriter will help any writer, even those with plain English training and experience.

  4. Thank you for this article, Josh. It’s both timely and right on. I love the critique. If alright with you, I’d like to use the way you broke down the analysis of the plain language version—a meta-layered lesson—with my academic and corporate writing students.

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