In a finding which surprised only marketers, a new Gallup poll has revealed that most of the American public supports the idea of a "Do Not Track" registry akin to the "Do Not Call" registry limiting telemarketing. 67% of those surveyed said they don't want marketers to be able to track their online behavior; 61% said they don't believe it's worth being tracked even in return for free access to online content.
This isn't the only area where online media appears to be out of step with the general public. Although I don't have any polling data about Facebook's use of facial recognition software, I can share the results of an informal survey I conducted last weekend of a roomful of tech-savvy young professionals: none of them had any idea that this was happening, and everyone expressed real discomfort with the idea once it was described to them.
And the same goes for facial recognition software in digital out-of-home signage, which can deliver advertising messages based on your age, race, and gender: once someone finds out the details of these systems, the reaction is usually predictable (and negative).
I have two (possibly contradictory) observations about this phenomenon: first, it's odd that marketers always seem surprised by the unfavorable public reaction to technological innovations which are not only new but -- relative to previous capabilities -- obviously quite intrusive. Anyone who says they don't understand why behavioral tracking or facial recognition technology might make someone uncomfortable is either disingenuous or totally lacking in commonsense. The same goes for anyone who innocently asks why Americans don't seem to trust businesses to protect and make responsible use of their private information: given the very public breaches and abuses of private information already on record, one wonders what planet these folks are living on. It's almost as silly as saying we should all just trust the government because, as the government, it naturally has our best interests at heart.
The second observation is that, in the long run, current public sentiment about these issues might not really matter. As Wall Street analyst Lou Kerner of Wedbush astutely pointed out at the MediaPost Search Summit in Park City Utah last week, Facebook's newsfeeds triggered a huge backlash when they were first introduced in September 2005. But Mark Zuckerberg -- after making suitably apologetic noises and backpedalling a bit -- didn't back down, and now they are one of the most popular features on the site. Likewise, Facebook's new facial recognition software will probably be viewed as an indispensable convenience five years from now.
As for the "Do Not Track" registry, there are some big differences which could save it from the fate of telemarketing after "Do Not Call." Whereas telemarketing was viewed by many Americans as merely a pestering nuisance, behavioral targeting has the potential to deliver real efficiencies for advertisers -- and therefore real cost savings for consumers who participate, provided marketers are willing to reward them. A good number of skeptics could probably be persuaded to opt in for behavioral targeting if the incentives are right (meaning, something more substantial than free access to Web content -- substantial discounts, free services, etc.). Otherwise it's unreasonable, exploitative and frankly insulting to expect consumers to compromise their privacy without getting anything in return.