To put a dollar amount on this massive time suck, Cantor and McDonald followed some standard procedures that the economics literature suggests could be used to calculate the opportunity cost of tasks. First, they split up web surfing between work and home visits. For work visits, they valued the time spent reading privacy policies at two times that worker's wages to take into account overhead and salary. For home visits, they multiplied the time spent reading at home by one-quarter of average wages. (A simpler hours multiplied by wages calculation would yield a higher cost than the one the researchers calculate here.)
The net effect of all this complicated figuring is that the researchers calculated the hypothetical opportunity cost to the nation of actually reading the Internet's privacy policies. The number they came up with is stunning:
That's greater than the GDP of Florida, which has the fourth largest state economy in the US.
It's also worth noting that this calculation was made in 2008, so undoubtedly, the number would be larger today, given the growth of the U.S. Internet population and the number and diversity of websites. Of course, no one is actually going to read all those privacy policies. What that massive number tells us is that the way we deal with privacy is fundamentally broken. The collective weight of the web's data collection practices is so great that no one can maintain a responsible relationship with his or her own data. That's got to change.