Unpacking Privacy Policies and Terms of Services

Unpacking Privacy Policies and Terms of Services

Note: This module works best in a desktop due to the tools being used.

Introduction and definitions

What are Privacy Policies?

A privacy policy is a document that discloses the ways a business gathers, uses, discloses, and manages a customer or client's data.

What are Terms of Services?

Known as Terms of Service(ToS), Terms of Use, or Terms and Conditions, these are agreements between a service provider and the person using the service.

Data Collection

The following is the list of the applications/websites which are being used to develop this analysis:

  • WhatsApp
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Snapchat
  • Uber
  • YouTube
  • YouTube Kids
  • Google
  • iCloud
  • Amazon
  • Twitter
  • Netflix
  • Pinterest
  • Spotify

This list is compromised of 14 of the most used applications, websites, and services offered in the US. These services require the user to agree to both privacy policies and terms of services before using the platform. These statements can also be accessed through each website; in order to proceed with analysis these sites were converted to text files.

Click here to access files.

Voyant Tools

Voyant tools is a web-based application designed to perform text analysis. Its mission is to "enhance reading through lightweight text analytics" that are also easily embedded in websites. The analysis of privacy policies and ToS is a perfect use case for Voyant tools.


Document Length

  • For the Privacy Policies, the longest document is Uber's Privacy Notice with 6703 words and the shortest document is YouTube Kids Privacy Notice with 1435 words. The average number of words for all documents is 4418 words.
  • For the Terms of Services, the longest document is iCloud's Terms of Service with 9052 words and the shortest document is Pinterest's terms of Service with 3057 words. The average number of words for all documents is 5090 words.

A 2019 study estimates that adults read at a pace of 238 words per minute. Taking this into consideration, privacy policies on average would take 19 minutes to read and terms of services would take 21 minutes on average to read.

Why are these documents so lengthy?

Privacy Policy Content

Figure 1: Most Frequent Words in Privacy Policies
Figure 2: Frequency of 'information' and 'data in privacy policies - Feel free to use the input tab to compare the trends of your choice of words.

As seen in Figure 1, the top terms found in the privacy policies are 'information', 'use', 'data', 'services', and 'personal'. 'Information' and 'data' however, are interchangeable as seen in Figure 2; the more 'information' is used in the document, the less 'data' is used and vise versa. Because of the frequency of these words, it is clear that subject of these documents is data.

Looking back to Figure 1, the verbs that dominate these documents are 'provide', 'use', 'collect', and 'access'.

Figure 3: Context of the Term 'Collect' in Privacy Policies - Click on a row to see the full context in which the word is used. Feel free to use the input tab to look up the context of the other verbs.

The context in which these verbs are used, exposes the dynamics between the service providers and the users. Figure 3 demonstrates that these verb are used to establish the authority of the service providers. After all, they are the ones that have the resources needed to 'collect' data and use it purposefully. Even if the service provider itself does not have the resources, there is several instances in which 'collect' exists in the context of companies giving 'affiliates' or 'third-parties' access to data.

This same context tool can be used to see what kind of data is being collected, to do so the terms 'data', 'information, and 'personal' are important. The following is a general list of data that these services collect:

  • Data From User's Profile (Name, email, phone number, address, gender, profile pictures)
  • Demographic Data
  • User Produced Content (Searches, posts, comments, likes, reviews)
  • Data Created Trough Use of Services (Location data, transaction information, usage data, device data)

Terms of Service Content

Figure 4: Most Frequent Words in Terms of Services

As seen in Figure 4, the top terms found in ToS are 'services', 'use', 'content', and 'terms'. This is due to the repetitive nature of these documents, each document is an explanation of the services being provided and the appropriate ways in which the user can use said services. While this gives the appearance that the purpose of ToS is to create an agreement between the provider and the user, there is also a legal component to these documents.

Figure 5:  Presence of the terms 'right', 'law', 'legal', 'court', and 'arbitration' in ToS - This tool shows the relative lengths of each document and the positions of terms found in the documents. Feel free to use the input tab to search for other terms.

Without taking into account specific legal jargon, Figure 5 shows the presence of common legal terms in ToS. These documents exist to protect the service provider from lawsuits as they preemptively outline their protections under the law while also establishing rules for the users to follow. Thus, the length of these documents is important as the service provider constantly reminds the user of the service they are providing in addition to covering their bases against potential lawsuits.


Privacy policies and ToS address different subjects, yet they serve the same purpose- establishing and protecting the authority of the service provider. The documents are masked as agreements, yet there is very little intention of making them digestible for the average user. A solution to this could be demanding that service providers present more digestible contracts for their users, this could be done in a more infographic or bullet-pointed approach that outlines the most important details of each contract.