Survey: Most Users Support “Do Not Track” Idea, Don’t Want Websites To Collect Their Data

As part of the Amsterdam Privacy Conference held earlier this week in The Netherlands, professors from the UC Berkeley School of Law presented research on US consumer attitudes toward online privacy and the concept of “do not track” (DNT) in particular. The three professors behind the research, Chris Jay Hoofnagle, Jennifer M. Urban and Su Li, have published several consumer privacy studies, most recently in the context of mobile payments.

This new survey, supporting the report “Privacy and Modern Advertising,” was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,203 US adult internet users in Q1 of this year.

The Berkeley Law researchers asked respondents whether they had heard of the DNT initiative as a preliminary matter. They discovered that 87 percent of respondents had not, while the remaining 13 percent had some knowledge of it.

The survey then asked consumers what a DNT policy or technology should protect or accomplish. The majority (60%) said they wanted it to “prevent websites from collecting information” about them. A smaller group (20%) wanted it to block ads, while 14 percent wanted it to prevent behavioral targeting and retargeting. The remaining 6 percent expressed confusion or declined to answer.

Source: UC Berkeley report: Privacy and Modern Advertising, n=1,203 US adult internet users (October 2012)

The survey went on to explore consumer knowledge of data collection and tracking rules in the specific context of health and medical websites, where disclosure of personal information is regulated. As with other questions, most respondents had a limited or incorrect understanding of what was going on or what the rules were.

Source: UC Berkeley report (October 2012)

In addition, the survey asked respondents about ad-supported publisher sites more generally: what data are publishers (or any associated third parties) allowed to capture or track? And what rules are those parties bound to follow? As the chart below reflects most people once again got the answers wrong or didn’t know.

Source: UC Berkeley report (October 2012)

Finally the researchers asked about the perceived value and utility of online advertising overall. Thirty percent of respondents said that online ads are “often” or “sometimes” useful to them. And 14 percent said they “often” or “sometimes” click on them. However the majority dismissed online ads as “hardly ever” or “never” useful.

Source: UC Berkeley report (October 2012)

We know that consumer attitudes and behavior are often at odds. Consumers may say one thing in a survey (responding to an abstract question) and behave in a very different way in the “real world” when presented with a concrete scenario. Advertising is one such example. People may not like ads generally but will respond to them under the right circumstances or if the right “offer” is presented. This is especially true in the context of mobile advertising.

It’s certainly possible many of these Berkeley survey respondents would find online ads valuable or useful in selected “real world” situations. However their overall attitude toward being tracked shouldn’t be dismissed or doubted. Pew found something very similar in a survey about search personalization and behavioral targeting earlier this year.

In survey after survey consumers consistently report feeling uncomfortable at the prospect of being tracked and targeted. Accordingly the UC Berkeley Law professors conclude in their report that internet users care about privacy and the majority don’t want to be tracked and targeted online. The report observes:

[M]ost consumers want Do Not Track to mean exactly that: do not collect information that allows companies to track them across the Internet. This may seem obvious, but even the definition articulated by the FTC may fall short of these consumer expectations. Further, advertising industry groups presently are lobbying for a different interpretation that would allow pervasive tracking and use of information derived from online experiences, even if the consumer opts out. 

The authors assert that online consumer desires and expectations are in conflict with online marketers’ objectives, including their ever-increasing appetite for data and effort to dilute DNT. ”If present trends continue,” the researchers warn, “we will soon find ourselves in a world where ultra-large tracking platforms will have data about almost all online and offline consumer transactional behavior. Consumers will find themselves subject to these platforms’ power to collect and use that data, and with little recourse . . .”

The study predicts that this consumer-industry divide over privacy and DNT will eventually and inevitably result in government intervention, which has started to take place, and ultimately lead to formal legislation and regulation.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Legal: Privacy


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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