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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.