Consumer Action: Most Web Users Want Control Over Tracking

Most Web users have expectations about privacy that appear to be at odds with current practices of ad companies, according to a report released on Tuesday by advocacy group Consumer Watch.

“Consumers need to be aware that online companies currently track, collect and share data without asking permission,” states the report, which was based on a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults. The survey, funded by Microsoft, was conducted in early May.

One striking finding is that the vast majority of respondents -- 69% -- said they would not allow companies to track, collect and share data about them in exchange for a free service or product. That sentiment appears to reflect a misunderstanding about online ad tracking, given that many ad networks currently collect data about Web users -- even if they opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads. The ad industry often argues that the data collection is justified by free content.

Lou Mastria, managing director of the ad trade group Digital Advertising Alliance, says the Consumer Action survey results can be explained by the language used in the questions. “The poll confirms what we already know, that ‘tracking’ is a loaded word that generates a predictably negative response,” he says. “When consumers are presented with the actual value proposition of interest-based advertising, minus the hyperbolic language, surveys demonstrate that they are overwhelmingly receptive to it.”

Earlier this year, the DAA said that research it commissioned showed that 75% of consumers would prefer a free, ad-supported Internet to an system where they had to pay for blogs, entertainment sites, video and social media.

Consumer Action also reported that almost nine in 10 survey respondents -- 87% -- said they think they should have the right to control what information about them is collected online. Nearly all respondents -- 96% -- said that advertisers should honor do-not-track signals sent by browsers.

All of the major browser manufacturers, including survey-funder Microsoft, currently offer do-not-track settings, but the ad industry is still evaluating how to respond to the settings. For now, the ad industry takes the position that companies should be able to collect data for market research purposes and analytics even when users say they don't want to be tracked. The ad industry also says that it should be able to ignore do-not-track settings from Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10, because the company turns those on by default.

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