A story last week in the New York Times reports that some two-thirds of Americans surveyed object to their being tracked online by advertisers. Further, once people learn about the various ways marketers can follow their online movements, the percentage climbed even higher.
The survey which is titled, "Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and Three Activities that Enable It", was conducted by five professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley who claimed that this was the first independent, nationally representative telephone survey on behavioral advertising.
According to the study's abstract,
"Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans (66%) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests. Moreover, when Americans are informed of three common ways that marketers gather data about people in order to tailor ads, even higher percentages - between 73% and 86% - say they would not want such advertising. Even among young adults, whom advertisers often portray as caring little about information privacy, more than half (55%) of 18-24 years-old do not want tailored advertising. And contrary to consistent assertions of marketers, young adults have as strong an aversion to being followed across web sites and offline (for example, in stores) as do older adults."
On the other hand, the Times article says, some 51% of the survey respondents were fine with tailored discounts, while 58% said that customized news was fine.
When asked whether these should be a law that gave people the right to know everything a web site knew about them, 69% said yes, according to the survey.
The online marketing industry, on the other hand, says that it is taking steps to explain to the public how it works, and claims, according to the Times story, that the more people understand online tracking and how the data is used, their concerns will "disappear."
Want to bet?
The Times notes that Representative Rick Boucher, Democrat from Virginia, is planning to introduce privacy legislation that will address on-line tracking, while David Vladeck, head of consumer protection for the The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), is indicating that he is keeping a close watch on consumer privacy protection as well.
A February 2009 FTC staff report on the usefulness of "Self-Regulatory Principles For Online Behavioral Advertising" can be found here, along with a specific story by the Times on David Vladeck's views on the subject here.
As I noted here earlier this year, European Union officials are also investigating consumer profiling by online advertisers.
Regulation of online tracking will happen, I believe: it is just more a question of what degree of informed consent will and will not be required.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.