A new survey from a group called Consumer Action has an unequivocal message for marketers: do not track us. The telephone survey was conducted in May among 1,000 US adults.
The findings are pretty negative, even ominous, for publishers and ad networks. However, they should come as no surprise. In numerous past surveys consumers have consistently expressed ambivalence and even outright hostility to the idea of being tracked and targeted by online marketers, ad networks and publishers.
This survey was partly funded through “a grant from Microsoft.” Below I highlight some of the findings but you can download the full survey results here (.pdf).
Large Majorities Believe They’re Being Tracked
The large majority of these respondents (81%) understand that tracking is widespread and believe “individuals can be personally linked to a specific device, such as a computer or mobile phone, when they go online.” And, 71 percent believe that “detailed personal information about individuals” is being collected by online entities without their knowledge.
While these views may not be 100 percent accurate, the majority of consumers generally understand that tracking, data mining and behavioral and demographic targeting are going on. And, 59 percent believe their locations are being tracked via mobile phone. About 30 percent were unaware their position or movements could be tracked via mobile.
Majority Doesn’t Want Tracking Even For More Relevant Ads
In a somewhat contradictory finding, indicating consumer confusion over some of these issues, 49 percent of survey respondents said the law prohibits online data collection without their explicit permission. This is obviously incorrect. However, 55 percent agreed with the statement that tracking “was the price of being online.”
Thus some people seem “resigned” to the notion of online tracking and data mining even though they express general disapproval of it.
Three-fourths (76 percent) of survey respondents somewhat or strongly disagree with the statement that there is “no harm” from tracking if the trade-off is “more relevant” ads. This finding specifically will be troubling to publishers and networks who generally claim consumers don’t mind giving up some privacy in exchange for “more relevant” ads.
The overwhelming majority (90 percent) of consumers agree with the statement “there should be a way for people to limit when they are tracked online.” Furthermore, 95 percent of these respondents say they should have the right to control what data are collected about them online.
Consumers Don’t Believe Online Companies Care about Privacy
Three-fourths (76 percent) said that online entities do not make it clear what they’re doing regarding data collection. And, 72 percent said they don’t believe online companies “consider [user] privacy.” In other words, these respondents are quite cynical about statements made by Facebook, Google and others who say “we care about your privacy.”
Despite these beliefs, basic majorities said that they had “read and understood” browser privacy settings (58 percent) and mobile phone privacy settings (57 percent). I suspect that these findings overstate the degree to which people actually do read and understand these privacy policies and settings.
Consumers Want “Do Not Track” By Default
The survey shows that consumers (83 percent) would prefer “do not track” as the default setting, as long as they have the capacity to turn ad targeting/tracking back on. (Online ad companies want the default to be opt-out.) Overall 88 percent would “prefer to have control of tracking” when browsing the web.
There has been considerable controversy surrounding Microsoft’s decision to make do not track the default setting in IE 10. Yahoo, advertising trade groups and others have said they would simply “ignore” those settings. However in the Consumer Action survey 96 percent of consumers said that do not track preferences “should be respected.”
Despite Microsoft being a partial funder of this survey and its IE policy position being supported by the findings, I don’t think they can be easily dismissed or minimized. Undoubtedly marketers and publishers will trumpet competing surveys that argue consumers are OK sacrificing privacy when it means more relevant ads.
This findings in this survey may provide additional support for efforts by the FTC and members of Congress to restart more comprehensive consumer privacy reform. However any new rules are likely to come from the states (e.g., California with its mobile privacy initiatives) or the FTC given the inability of Congress to pass legislation in this area.