By Jeff Bercovici, Forbes
“Study Finds Broad Wariness Over Online Tracking” is the headline The New York Times put on its story about the results of a new survey by researchers at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. “Study Finds Broad Ignorance Over Online Tracking” would have worked just as well.
A poll of 1,203 adults demonstrated three things. First, Americans
don’t like the idea that marketers are collecting data about their
online behavior and shopping habits. Second, Americans have only the
foggiest understanding of how their data is being collected and what can
be done to limit that collection. Third, Americans are confused about
what they actually want.
Anyone trying to gauge Americans’ feelings about tracking quickly
runs into the ignorance problem. What can you really learn by asking
people how they feel about something they didn’t know anything about
until you asked them about it?
Since only 13 percent of survey participants had ever heard of the Do
Not Track initiative, the Berkeley researchers were forced to resort to
a hypothetical: What do you think choosing an option that calls itself
“Do Not Track” ought to entail? Here’s how they answered.
When they can be bothered to think about, then, most people feel like
they should have the option to choose not to have any of their online
behaviors monitored in any way, even though that’s not remotely what
current Do Not Track proposals seek to provide.
(Nor, need it be said, is the capacity to opt out of internet advertising altogether.)
But for the most part they can’t be bothered to think about it. Maybe
that’s because so many of them are laboring under the false belief that
they’re being tracked far less than they are. Asked whether advertisers
must first obtain an internet user’s permission before tracking them
across multiple sites, a plurality of respondents believed that to be
The researchers asked specifically about medical websites, assuming
participants would be more mindful of privacy considerations in such a
So most people think they’re being tracked less than they are, but
would like to be tracked even less than they think they’re being. At the
same time, they’d like not to be bothered by irrelevant ads. Asked how
often they find ads useful, 69% of respondents said either “hardly ever”
or “never,” leading the researchers to conclude that support for Do Not
Track might be rooted in “an aversion to advertising more generally,”
not just privacy concerns.
Of course, it’s behavioral tracking and targeting that allows advertisers to serve users the kinds of ads they’ll find relevant.
To summarize: Consumers would like advertisers to serve them ads that
are more relevant to their lives, but without knowing anything about
those lives. Alternatively, they’d like to see no ads at all. But don’t
take away their free content. They like that.