Eye looks through a hole in the paper - spy

Wait, you actually read the privacy policy?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Mar 7, 2012    •    694 Views

By Mira Korber, guest blogger.

How often do we see “Privacy Policy” at the bottom of a web page? All the time. How often do we read beyond the alliterative title? At least for me, almost never.

And thankfully so, because those privacy policies would surely be gobbling up a lot of time. According to this entertaining article from The Atlantic, a pair of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University decided to determine all the time we would spend responsibly reading all the privacy policies we encounter in a year.

Here are the numbers:

  • Median length of a privacy policy: 2,514 words
  • Time required to read: approx. 10 mins
  • Number of sites we visit with unique privacy policies: approx. 1,462
  • Individual time required to read all these policies: 25 days straight or 76 business days
  • Aggregate time required for reading: 53.8 billion hours


Next, those clever researchers decided to calculate the opportunity cost of spending all that time with your nose in a privacy policy. Their answer: $781 billion (which is larger than Florida’s GDP).  Check out their official study here.

So it’s evident to everyone by now that reading privacy policies keeps us from doing other big important things.


Curiosity finally overcame my general laziness regarding reading Google’s new “This Stuff Matters” privacy policy. It’s controversial because it tracks your online activities, YouTube searches, and web queries more closely than ever before. Incidentally, users can’t avoid Google’s omnipresent eyeball.

Here are some creepy consequences of this new privacy policy’s power.

The Economic Lesson

Every decision comes with an opportunity cost. It’s what you sacrifice when you choose to do anything at all.

For example:

(1) Your opportunity cost of watching a horror movie may be getting a restful night’s sleep. (2) Your opportunity cost of reading a privacy policy may be searching for that suitably scary horror movie online.

(By the way, Google will probably know if you choose to search for either privacy policies or horror movies, due to the company’s new privacy policy itself.)

An Economic Question: Have you ever considered the opportunity cost of other mundane daily activities similar to reading privacy policies?

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