Contrary to the claims of online marketers, most U.S. residents do not want to receive Web advertising tailored to their interests, according to a study released Wednesday by two universities.
Sixty-six percent of those surveyed don't want tailored, or targeted, online ads, according to the study, from the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Asked if online ad vendors should deliver targeted ads by tracking customers' behavior across multiple Web sites, 86 percent of the 1,000 respondents said no.
"While privacy advocates have lambasted behavioral targeting for tracking and labeling people in ways they do not know or understand, marketers have defended the practice by insisting it gives Americans what they want: advertisements and other forms of content that are as relevant to their lives as possible," the study said. "In high percentages, [U.S. residents] stand on the side of privacy advocates."
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, called the new survey "meaningful" and suggested that it may drive U.S. lawmakers to focus more on new privacy laws. The report could also prompt online marketers to take a new look at their own policies, he said.
"It gives you a sense that consumers really want their privacy protected," he said. "They're very concerned about their personal information being used, especially in ways they're not aware of."
Thirty-five percent of respondents said executives of companies that use personal information illegally should face jail time, and 18 percent said those companies should be put out of business.
The new study seems to conflict with the results of a March survey by Internet privacy services vendor TRUSTe.
The TRUSTe survey found that two out of three consumers were aware that their browsing information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes. In addition, the survey found that 51 percent of those surveyed were uncomfortable with behavioral advertising, compared to 57 percent in 2008.
"Statistics are a funny thing," said Mike Zaneis, vice president for public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade group for online marketers. "[TRUSTe] too polled over a thousand consumers, but focused on online users, the very constituency who might have legitimate privacy concerns about online behavioral advertising. TRUSTe’s results were strikingly different."
Consumers "love" the Web content and services that online advertising pays for, Zaneis added in an e-mail. "It is also clear that consumers have rejected the scattershot approach of spam messaging, and prefer to receive marketing messages that are relevant to their needs and desires," he said. "This relevancy, the elimination of advertising 'noise' from people’s daily lives, is the promise that interactive advertising presents to consumers and companies alike."
The fact that TRUSTe used an online survey skews the results, countered Joseph Turow, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the new report. The Berkeley/University of Pennsylvania phone survey may better reflect the overall attitudes about targeted advertising across the U.S., not just the position of people who take the initiative to answer an online survey, he said.
IAB and other advertising groups released new online privacy principles in July. Online advertising networks should "maintain appropriate physical, electronic, and administrative safeguards" to protect data collected, and they should retain the data "only as long as necessary to fulfill a legitimate business need, or as required by law," the principles said.
"This self-regulatory regime ... will ensure that consumers have ready access to information about behavioral targeting and are always empowered to exercise their choice to not have this information used to deliver more relevant ads back to them," Zaneis said.
U.S. Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, has said he plans to introduce legislation this year that would require opt-in permission for Web sites to collect personal data. Several lawmakers and privacy advocates have expressed recent concerns that online advertising networks are collecting too much information about Web users without adequately informing them.
A privacy bill is worth considering, Turow said. "Self-regulation has a long history of failure, as well as some successes," he said.
The new report doesn't go into the reasons why U.S. residents seem leery of targeted advertising, but Turow suggested that many people don't understand how targeted advertising works and are concerned that they can't change their preferences in many cases.
"There's no one answer," he said. "I think part of it has to do with what some people call the creepiness factor of being tracked."
Some people seem to also be concerned that they will be treated differently from others because of online tracking, Turow added. The survey found that 49 percent of respondents didn't want discounts, and 57 percent didn't want news, tailored to their interests.
"They maybe think that advertisers will not give them the same deals or the same ads that other people get," he said. "I think that may have to do with some feeling of the possibility that they'd be missing out on something, based on the ideas that advertisers have about them."