In 2009, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law stunned much of the ad industry by releasing a report showing that two out of three Web users don't want customized ads.
Before that report came out, online ad industry executives tended to say that the only people who objected to behavioral targeting were privacy "elitists" and not every day consumers, who would benefit by receiving more relevant ads.
This week, a new study by Consumers Reports also shows that many Web users aren't happy with online ad targeting. Forty-five percent of respondents to a recent poll said they were not comfortable with receiving ads based on their online browsing purchase history, even when the information used to target ads wasn't tied to names or otherwise personally identifiable. A comparable proportion, 43%, said they would be comfortable with such anonymous targeting.
The study, released in conjunction with a Senate panel hearing this week about privacy, was based on a telephone poll of more than 750 Web users conducted in May.
Strikingly, a large majority of respondents (81%) said they want to see a universal do-not-track mechanism that would allow them to permanently avoid online tracking. What's more, two-thirds of those polled (67%) said that the government should help protect people's online privacy.
Almost all respondents said they already took some measures to protect their privacy -- though not necessarily to avoid behavioral advertising. Almost nine in 10 (89%) said they had installed anti-adware or anti-spyware programs, while 70% said they deleted cookies frequently, and 30% said they took other steps to opt out, either by visiting an industry-run page such as the Network Advertising Initiative's, or using a browser-based opt-out.
It's worth noting that some of those numbers sound unexpectedly high. In February, the Network Advertising Initiative reported that only 3 million unique visitors even saw the group's main Web page last year, and that fewer than 500,000 people went through the organization's opt-out procedure.