Poll: Consumers Concerned Over Online Tracking

By Steve Smith

The behavioral targeting technologies that are fundamental to many future digital advertising models may suffer serious push-back from consumers. A new Zogby poll indicates that 88% of adults in the U.S. consider the tracking of their online activities without explicit permission an “unfair business practice.” This is a surprisingly high result, considering that anonymous behavioral targeting of one kind or another is standard practice at many sites. The survey was conducted just this month with over 2,000 people and so it comes in the midst of controversy over Facebook’s handling of user privacy settings and recent Congressional legislation aimed at regulating online data collection practices. Almost half (49%) of respondents, say they believe government regulators should play a bigger role in protecting online consumer privacy. Seventy-nine percent would like to see a digital “Do Not Track” list that lets a consumer easily opt out of any tracking in much the same way the national “Do Not Call” list prevents telemarketers from contacting consumers.

Drilling further into the Zogby results, it is clear that online users are a bit more moderate on the issue of advertising technologies. When asked about their level of concern over companies that record online habits and use the data to generate profit through advertising, 44% said they were “very concerned” and 37% were “somewhat concerned.”

The poll was commissioned by Scott Cleland of Precursor, LLC. Cleland has been critical in the past of online data collection practices. At his blog announcing the poll, he said that online privacy is a rare bi-partisan issue. “In sum, this Zogby poll is interesting and important because it exposes how unpopular many common Internet online privacy-related practices are with American consumers and how popular many proposed privacy-related protections would be with the American public,” Cleland says.

The issue of online privacy should be of continued interest to publishers because almost all major media are partnering with ad networks and ad-serving technologies that involve some sort of user tracking. Many publishers are themselves unaware of how many ad tags are being adjoined to their pages and how the anonymous user data is being shared among partner upon partner. Ultimately, the publisher is most likely to be held responsible for their users’ privacy, but very few content providers raise the issue explicitly with users. The issue will likely come to a head in coming months as Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) introduced draft legislation in Congres last month that would regulate online data collection and ensure easy opt-out mechanisms for consumers.