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Privacy & Data

Consumer (Dis)Comfort With Online Tracking

In privacy debates about online advertising, the focus is most often on consumers. Consumers love free content, the advertisers and ad networks say. They say consumers are willing to have their online activities analyzed and categorized, because an ad for a minivan that lands in front of a soccer mom is valuable, and valuable ads are what support the free content consumers love. On the other hand, privacy advocates like CDT say that consumers should be in control. We say consumers should know they’re being tracked, and if they’re uncomfortable with the tracking, they should have a way to avoid it. Even if it means one less minivan ad pitched to a soccer mom. Today, we have a new window into just how comfortable or uncomfortable consumers may be with online tracking. In survey results released yesterday by Harris Interactive and Alan F. Westin, we find that consumers aren’t quite as comfortable as advertisers and ad networks may want them to be. The 2,513 adults surveyed were told that Web sites like Google, Yahoo!, and MSN can provide free search engines and email accounts because they profit from online advertising. When asked how comfortable they would be with these sites using information about their online activities to tailor ads and content to their interests, 59% of survey respondents said they would not be comfortable, while 41% said they would be comfortable. Similarly, TRUSTe survey results released today revealed that 57% of the 1,015 people surveyed said they are not comfortable with advertisers using their browsing histories to serve them relevant ads. These results on their own are significant. Even when presented with the fact that free services cherished by many consumers may be sustained by advertising based tracking data, the majority of respondents in the Westin study still found the tracking uncomfortable. And 25% of them said they were not comfortable with it "at all" (as opposed to the "not very comfortable" category, which made up the remainder of the 59%). In the TRUSTe survey, 42% said they would sign up for a service that would not allow advertisers to track their browsing behavior, even if it meant seeing more ads that were less relevant to them. The Westin survey pushed the privacy question even further. Respondents were presented with a list of four privacy safeguards, and they were asked how comfortable they would be with sites using their information to customize ads and content if the sites implemented these safeguards. Even with the privacy protections, 45% said they would not be comfortable, while 55% said they would be comfortable. Although this represents a 14% shift from responses to the previous question, the uncomfortable group is still substantial. And, as the study author points out, in previous studies the shift in acceptability based on adding in privacy safeguards is usually 20% or greater. There’s something about online tracking that seems to cause uneasiness, despite any benefits or protections that may be in place. As the privacy debate rages on, the more information we have about how consumers feel about online tracking, the better. These surveys provide a rich glimpse into consumer comfort, and show us that even when some of the value propositions that underlie online advertising are presented to consumers, privacy concerns persist.