Two surveys released this week have revealed that internet users are becoming more and more concerned about their online privacy, as debate rages between regulators and activists over how much control we should have over advertisers seeking to collect our personal data.
Surveys recently released by the University of Queensland in Australia and the Pew Internet and American Life Project in the United States, both found that a majority of internet users are not comfortable with targeted advertisements and data collection. The Queensland survey found that 56% of Australians are not comfortable with online advertising companies and websites tracking their online behaviour and collecting anonymous data, while the Pew survey found the 68% of Americans did not want targeted ads if meant they would be tracked online.
The University of Queensland also found that 90% of users wanted to be able to control how their data is collected online by advertisers, and that 75% wanted to find out more about how advertisers capture that data. The survey further discovered that 97% of Australians want the ability to take legal action if their privacy is breached.
“Companies know more and more about us, but we know very little about what they’re doing with that information,” said the University of Queensland’s Dr Andrejevic. “The more they collect, the less we know. As the level of information collection increase in the digital era, democracy and personal autonomy need to be protected.”
The meaning of “Do Not Track”
The two surveys comes as tensions rise between the online advertising industry and privacy advocates, over plans to introduce an opt-out mechanism for consumers who do not want to be tracked by ad agencies. The ‘Do Not Track’ initiative has seen the Digital Advertising Alliance, US federal regulators and privacy activists unable to even reach a consensus over what “Do Not Track” actually means.
Privacy watchdogs argue that a ‘Do Not Track’ opt-out should allow users to prevent any data collection from advertisers, full stop. While the DAA argues that users should only have the right to opt-out of seeing targeted ads, with advertisers still permitted to collect anonymous data. The DAA also argues that Do Not Track should only refer to third party advertisers and not the first party websites that the users actually visit.
Google has already added a ‘Do Not Track’ button to its Chrome browser (which blocks targeted ads, but allows data collection), but the issue is far from resolved. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) convenes later in the year to create its own Do Not Track standards – a process that is expected to generate even more debate - and the US Federal Trade Commission says it will release a report soon detailing its own conclusions on the issue.
“I believe currently we are in a pitched negotiation over exactly how powerful a choice users will have when it comes to online tracking,” said Rainey Reitman, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The next few months are going to be a decision-making time for whether Do Not Track is a truly powerful mechanism.”
Privacy vs free content?
While it’s very tempting to automatically side with the activists over user privacy concerns, the issue is a complex one. Advertising revenue is what keeps so much internet content free to access and the online advertising industry relies immensely on collecting user data and tracking what users do after they’ve clicked on an ad.
As the surveys mentioned above indicate, the majority of internet users – given the choice – will opt out of data tracking, which leaves content producers (everyone from The New York Times to YouTube) facing an uphill struggle in terms of staying profitable. On the other hand, the sheer number of internet advertising firms collecting user data is astonishing and none of these firms appear accountable to anyone. Sure, they may not have any malicious intentions but, with the internet permeating nearly all aspects of our life, are we comfortable with being watched so closely? And can we really trust these companies to protect the data they collect ?