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Posts Tagged ‘Internet Surveys’

Coming to Grips with Reality

January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the first tasks for government in the new millennium is a gargantuan one: regulating today’s Internet.  At least two federal agencies are taking the plunge, having announced their intent to create comprehensive frameworks that would ensure online privacy (FTC), and access to broadband capability (FCC) for Internet consumers. Both the FCC and FTC continue to conduct workshops and solicit comment on the relevant topics – and we should see an initial draft of these plans shortly.  For instance, Chairman Genachowski’s national broadband plan is now due for release on March 17.

How you feel about the Obama Administration’s invigorated Internet policymaking activities is probably closely related to your view on net neutrality.  Should the Internet be regulated? That question is now moot. The real question is whether effective regulation can even be designed at this stage in the Internet’s evolution.  And before we reach that answer, policymakers and regulators must confront the reality about consumers, business models and the role of data collection on the Internet today.

First, who is today’s Internet consumer?  Arguably, they are a driving force behind the evolution and adoption of Internet technologies and not just passive users.  Witness the recent explosion in mobile web usage (driven mostly by consumers’ need for “anytime, anywhere” access to information) for proof of this proposition.  Indeed, the consumerization of technology (web search, iPhone), has given rise to many of the tech policy issues we wrangle with today. Yet, there is little or no research on how individual consumers view important issues – like online privacy – and how these attitudes can vary depending on age and location (after all, internet consumers are not a homogenous bunch).  Policymakers should take the time to carefully study the Internet consumer– perhaps using technology to reach out directly – and to keep refreshing that research alongside development of any regulatory scheme. Citizen focused initiatives, like the FCC’s Open Internet website, are a start in the right direction.

Second, we must recognize that data collection is part of how today’s Internet works.  The most successful companies of the last decade were those that were able to use data or information in innovative ways, such as enhancing online searches (Google) or providing more relevant recommendations to online shoppers (Amazon).  Information enhances customer relationships; it also fuels targeted advertising – the lifeblood for many companies on the web. Internet policies should be constructed with these realities in mind.  In addition, research is truly needed on consumers’ attitudes towards data collection – is it the gathering or the sharing of information that’s the issue?

Finally, Internet business models are always changing.  The Internet is constantly forcing companies to rethink how they do business (check out Professor Doug Lichtman’s podcast, Can Content Survive Online, for more thoughts on this point). Business models die and are resurrected all the time -who ever thought that the walled garden would make a comeback? Policymakers and regulators must keep current with industry developments to remain both effective and relevant in this area.

Will reality be part of future policy making or regulatory activities?  Already, the first working week of the decade has provided an opportunity for comment:   Is TV Everywhere an authentication technology that secures premium content for subscribers or a collusive effort by media companies to restrain online media competition?

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Academic Survey Shows Public Discomfort with Targeted Ads

September 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Evidence of how the average consumer views online privacy is usually absent from the heated debates on this multi-layered issue (for more, see my very first post to the Balancing Act).  That may start to change after today.  A group of professors from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California Berkeley have published the results of a survey of 1000 adult Internet users and found that most respondents were not comfortable with Internet marketers gathering data and then using that data to deliver tailored ads – a process known as behavioral advertising.

At least two of the survey’s results deserve a moment’s pause.  First, while over 66% of the survey’s respondents said that they were not comfortable with tailored ads, that number jumped to 86% when respondents learned how marketers gather the data that is used to serve tailored ads. Second, even in the era of living life online via Facebook or MySpace, 55% of the young adults (18-24) surveyed were not comfortable with tailored ads.  This means that  younger, Internet-savvy users do believe in some notion of privacy online.  Just these two findings should concern Internet companies that collect data and use that data to deliver tailored ads and content.  But the survey should also concern regulators – as these findings signal widespread unease with how products and services are marketed on the Internet today.

Discussing the survey in today’s New York Times, the authoring professors stated that the survey is “the first independent, nationally representative telephone survey on behavioral advertising.”  Hopefully, it will remind lawmakers of the importance of empirical evidence in evaluating the policy issues surrounding targeted ads.  And the timing could not be better, particularly now as a perfect storm brews around the online privacy issue – federal legislation to be introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher, the FTC’s upcoming privacy roundtables, and recent comments by David Vladek, the newly appointed head of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, that could “upset the online advertising ecosystem.”

Indeed, the price for free web content is often advertising, including behavioral advertising.   Will consumers be willing to give up the variety of free content currently available on the web in exchange for content on websites that do not track Internet behavior?  Will consumers be satisfied with disclosures or perhaps opt-ins, or is online privacy a non-negotiable?  Perhaps the next study or survey will shed some more details on this Gordian Knot of an issue.  Let the questions begin.