Survey Finds Many Americans Don't Understand Online Data Collection

Since 2018, at least six states have passed privacy laws that require companies to obtain consumers' consent to collect and harness data for ad purposes.

But those laws don't go nearly far enough to actually protect privacy. At least that's what a new report from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication suggests.

Annenberg professor Joe Turow and other authors of the report “Americans Can't Consent To Companies' Use Of Their Data,” argue that many people don't understand how companies compile information well enough to make informed decisions about tracking.

Instead, the authors say, policymakers should impose broad restrictions on advertisers' ability to target consumers based on data collected over time or across sites.

“We believe that consent, whether opt in or opt out, should no longer be allowed to trigger data collection,” the report states.

“If policymakers would like to retain an advertising-based business model based on consumer interests, we suggest that they restrict it to contextual advertising,” the authors add. “Policymakers could permit a system where companies can target people based only on the context in which advertisers find customers in the moment.”

The report comes as the Federal Trade Commission is considering crafting privacy regulations -- including ones that could curb online data collection.

For the report, researchers arranged for the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center to survey more than 2,000 adults in August and September.

Researchers posed a series of questions aimed at testing respondents' awareness of corporate and governmental policies and practices. The results showed that many people lack information about data collection and sharing.

For instance, nearly one in four respondents (24%) said they didn't know whether websites can collect information about people's online activity without their names or email addresses, while an additional 6% said websites are unable to collect data about online activity without users' names or email addresses.

Also, around one in four (24%) mistakenly believed that the federal government requires companies to obtain users' opt-in consent to tracking, while nearly half (45%) said they didn't know whether the government requires opt-in consent to tracking.

The report “provides evidence that notice-and-consent may be beyond repair -- and could even be harmful to individuals and society,” the authors write.

“A great percentage of the US population has no understanding of how the basics of the commercial internet work,” the report states. Expecting Americans to learn how to continually keep track of how and when to opt out, opt in, and expunge their data is folly.”

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