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Survey Says: Consumers Confused about Online Tracking

Posted in Privacy Regulation

Written by Amy Malone

Amid the chatter regarding the elections,  the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology recently released a report on Americans’ views of “Do Not Track”.  They found that 87% of the 1,200 people surveyed had never heard of Do Not Track.  The Do Not Track regulations that privacy groups began advocating for over 5 years ago calls for an opt-out mechanism that would allow people to opt-out once from all behavioral advertising.  The Federal Trade Commission supported this measure and in 2010 they offered testimony to Congress stating that industry self-regulation has fallen short and that legislation may be the best course for a uniform approach.

While the government, privacy advocates and the ad industry sort out the details, it’s time to focus on users. The survey report demonstrates a clear need for user education as almost half of those surveyed answered “don’t know” to survey questions about online tracking and sharing of information that is collected.  Those surveyed that answered the questions often gave the wrong answers.  For example, almost half of those surveyed said that if a company wants to follow your internet use across multiple sites on the internet it must first obtain your permission.  In addition, 25 % of those surveyed thought they had a right to require websites to delete the information the website has about them and 22% thought permission was needed for advertisers to track them on medical websites such as WebMD.

In addition to highlighting the  participants’ general misunderstanding of online tracking, the survey also shed light on what participants want from a do not track mechanism.  When asked what they wanted Do Not Track to do, 60% of the participants responded that they want Do Not Track to prevent websites from collecting information about them, while 20% said they want it to stop all ads and 14% said they want it to prevent websites from sending targeted advertisements.

The survey report evidences that there is a disconnect surrounding what users want (to not have information collected about them), what’s actually happening (information is being collected about them) and what users think is happening (that privacy laws are limiting the collection and use of information about them).  The report concludes by promoting a revised approach to tracking and targeting advertising by endorsing a model that was proposed in 2010 that allows highly targeted ads without creating databases of internet behavior held by third parties.