At the Wired for Change conference earlier this week, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz noted that the FTC is developing a “nutrition label” for data collection and use, modeled after the nutrition facts label for food and beverages.  Leibowitz reportedly said that the agency’s chief technologist and the Bureau of Consumer Protection are working to identify “five essential terms” that should be included in these standardized privacy policies.  California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who spoke on the same panel as Leibowitz, supported the idea of food labels for mobile apps, according to reporters’ tweets

The concept of a nutrition label for privacy has been under discussion in the privacy community for some time.  In July 2001, FTC Commissioner Sheila Anthony suggested that nutrition labels and EnergyGuide labels could serve as models for standardized privacy policies.  Several academics have developed standardized table formats for privacy policies, and research from Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab has found that standardized privacy policy formats allow readers to find information more accurately and quickly. 

Privacy icons are another area where several groups have sought to develop standardized approaches.  The Entertainment Software Rating Board announced yesterday that digitally delivered games, in addition to the standard content and age-appropriateness ratings, now also will have “Interactive Elements” icons to indicate whether games share personal information with third parties, share the user’s location, or allow users to interact.  Earlier this month, ACT introduced its “App Privacy Icons,” which give mobile developers a way to communicate their apps’ data collection and sharing practices.  In the 2010-2011 period, Mozilla worked on a similar project to develop privacy icons that would “bolt on” to websites’ existing privacy policies.  The Digital Advertising Alliance’s “AdChoices Icon” is another example of a graphical approach to communicating privacy information.  Evidon now serves the AdChoices Icon more than 2 billion times globally each day, although a survey conducted in December 2011 raised questions about the icon’s effectiveness:  only about a quarter of the survey participants remembered seeing the icon after viewing a simulated news page with ads, and some thought that the icon meant “click to play advertisement” or “click to see next picture.” 

Notably, the FTC’s idea for a privacy “nutrition label” comes at a time when the usefulness of the current actual nutrition label for food and beverages is being questioned.  New York Times columnist Mark Bittman offered a proposed “traffic light” label earlier this month, and last year the UC Berkeley School of Journalism ran a contest to come up with a more user-friendly nutrition facts label.