• Two-Thirds of Americans Disapprove of Online Tracking
  • November 12, 2009
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Roughly two out of three Americans disapprove of online or behavioral tracking by advertisers, according to a new survey from professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley. Moreover, that percentage goes up once people find out about the various ways in which advertisers track their online usage.

    The professors say they think that the study released earlier this month is the first independent, nationally representative telephone survey on behavioral advertising.

    Behavioral advertising, which uses software to track Internet surfing so advertisers can better target individual consumers, is currently on the hot seat, with privacy advocates urging Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to regulate online tracking. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has announced his intention to introduce privacy legislation shortly. David Vladeck, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection for the FTC, has also said that the agency plans to look closely at data privacy issues. Marketers defend behavioral tracking, arguing that advertising supports free online content. In July, the major advertising trade groups proposed a set of self-regulatory measures that they hoped would stave off regulation, including a notice to consumers that they were being tracked.

    Behavioral tracking-related research to date has been mostly company-financed or Internet-based, which survey experts say is not representative of all Americans. As a result, this latest study has received widespread attention.

    The study’s authors hired a survey company to interview 1,000 adult Internet users. The 20-minute interview included such questions as “Please tell me whether or not you want the Web sites you visit to give you discounts that are tailored to your interests.” The results were later adjusted to reflect Census Bureau patterns in categories like sex, age, population density, and telephone usage.

    Two-thirds of respondents were averse to tailored ads in general. Then the respondents were told about different ways that companies tailor ads: by following what someone does on the company’s site, on other sites, and in offline places like stores. After being informed of tracking techniques, respondents’ aversion to behavioral tracking went up even more. An additional 7 percent said tailored ads were not OK when they were tracked on the site, 18 percent said it was not OK when they were tracked via other Web sites, and 20 percent said it was not OK when they were tracked offline.

    Respondents were less put off by customized discounts and news, with 49 percent saying tailored discounts were OK, and 42 percent saying customized news was OK.

    Interestingly, the researchers did not find a significant difference in responses broken down by age, with 55 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 objecting to behavioral advertising.

    The survey also asked nine true-or-false questions to ascertain how knowledgeable Americans were about privacy protection. Only one question, regarding sweepstakes, was answered correctly by more than half of respondents.

    Finally, the survey asked if there should be a law that gave people the right to know everything a Web site knew about them. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said yes. Ninety-two percent also supported a hypothetical law that required Web sites and advertisers to delete all information about an individual upon request.

    “I don’t think that behavioral targeting is something that we should eliminate, but I do think that we’re at a cusp of a new era, and the kinds of information that companies share and have today is nothing like we’ll see 10 years from now,” said one of the study’s authors. He said he would like “a regime in which people feel they have control over the data that marketers collect about them. The most important thing is to bring the public into the picture, which is not going on right now.”

    Why it matters: The survey seems to give privacy advocates ammunition to push for greater regulation of online behavioral tracking. Now more than ever, online marketers should work to put in place self-regulatory rules that address the concerns of advocates and lawmakers, as well as take steps to explain to consumers how behavioral targeting actually works.