April 10, 2012 | By Lee Tien

As Some Companies Choose "Do Not Target" Over "Do Not Track," What Are User Attitudes?

Do Not Track continues its surge of momentum in the past few months. As we document in The State of Do Not Track, a number of stakeholders are recognizing the importance of user control over whether or not an online company can track users and how much information, if any, the company can collect. Noticeably absent from the conversation are hard numbers on users' attitudes towards online behavioral advertising, or "targeted advertising."

Advertisers and media companies routinely dismiss privacy concerns when it comes to online advertising. At the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in 2009, Disney CEO Robert Iger stated: "When you hear arguments about privacy, they tend to come from older people." Referring to how his daughters use the Internet, he continued, "When I talk to them about online privacy, they don't know what I'm talking about." Often, such statements are viewed as the norm in advertising circles. Just last week, Mike Zaneis, General Counsel of the Individual Advertising Bureau, a consortium of online advertisers, discussed how users "don't have the same level of concern" after they understand how targeted advertising works. Despite these assertions, there is a consistent trend showing users’ negative attitudes towards targeted advertising—even when they understand what information companies collect.

In 2009, academics from UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania asked (PDF) over 1,000 respondents about "tailored" (targeted) advertising. When asked about tailored ads, 66% of respondents said they would not want websites to show them ads based on their interests. Next, respondents were asked whether they wanted tailored advertising based on actions they took on the website they visited. Overall, 75% of respondents said they did not want tailored ads served to them in this manner. Breaking it out by age group, 67% of respondents between 18-24, and 82% of respondents between 50-64 did not want tailored ads served to them this way. Researchers then asked whether respondents would want tailored ads based on their activity on "other websites." The result: 86% of 18-24 year olds and 91% of 50-64 year olds said they "definitely" do not want tailored ads served to them this way. In a follow up study expanding on the data from 2009, the researchers also found that 68% of respondents believed "there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them.”

The results were reiterated in a December 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll (PDF). In this survey, respondents were informed that websites were able to "match advertisements" to specific user interests by collecting what websites a user visited. 67% of respondents answered no when asked whether "advertisers should or should not be allowed to do this."

The Gallup poll also tackled industry claims about how targeted advertising helps lower the cost of Internet services. Gallup asked users if methods to gather information for targeted ads were "justified because they keep costs down so users can visit websites for free." The result? 61% of respondents said no.

Negative attitudes toward targeted advertising continued through 2011. In conjunction with Harris Interactive, TRUSTe, an online privacy firm, conducted a survey (PDF) in July 2011 about online behavioral advertising. After describing online behavioral advertising neutrally, TRUSTe found that 54% of respondents stated they "do not like" online behavioral tracking and 85% of respondents said they would not consent to tracking for ad targeting.  When respondents were asked about tracking their online behavior for websites to improve content: 78% said they would not consent to tracking for such purposes.

In "A Personalized Approach to Web Privacy—Awareness, Attitudes and Actions," (PDF) users were informed about what type of information websites were able to collect. In the study, respondents were shown a list of websites they visited that were obtained by tracking cookies on their computers. 63% of users said they were "concerned by the level of monitoring."

Pew's Internet and American Life project released the most recent poll (PDF) on user attitudes in February 2012 and further confirmed the continuing trend of users’ negative attitudes towards online behavioral tracking. The report concluded: "a majority of every demographic group says they are not okay with targeted online advertising." Pew found that 68%—roughly two-thirds—answered they were "not okay with it because I don't like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed." When you break out the question by age, almost six-in-ten (59%) people between the age of 18 and 29, and almost eight-in-ten people between the ages of 50 and 64 (78%) disapproved of the practice.

The trend of user positions on online behavioral advertising is clear, but even as companies continue advertising their support for Do Not Track, some of them are still collecting data when users send the Do Not Track header. No means no. And when user attitudes are clear on such issues there is an even greater imperative for companies to respect users’ wishes.

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