Study: Surfers Do Not Want Marketers Tracking Them Online

BERKELEY, CALIF—Results from a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center and the University of California at Berkeley indicate a clear majority of Americans— 66 percent—do not want their web-surfing habits tracked for the purpose of tailoring ads to them. The study already is being criticized by the head of Google’s Webspam team.

“Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans (66 percent) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests,” the report claims. “Moreover, when Americans are informed of three common ways that marketers gather data about people in order to tailor ads, even higher percentages—between 73 percent and 86 percent—say they would not want such advertising."

The authors say the study is the first nationally representative telephone survey (wireless and cell) to explore Americans' attitudes about behavioral targeting by marketers, which they refer to as “a controversial issue currently before government policyholders.”

“Behavioral targeting involves two types of activities: following users’ actions and then tailoring advertisements for the user based on those actions," the report notes. "While privacy advocates have lambasted behavioral tracking and labeling people in ways they do now 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 goal of the study was to find out which position Americans hold and the results, the authors say, were unambiguous.

“In high percentages, [Americans] stand on the side of privacy advocates,” say the authors. “This is the result even among young adults (55 percent), whom advertisers often portray as caring little about information privacy."

Among the study's other findings:

  • Even when they are told the act of following them on websites will take place anonymously, Americans' aversion to it remains: 68 percent "definitely" would not allow it, and 19 percent "probably" would not allow it.
  • A majority of Americans also does not want discounts or news fashioned specifically for them, though the percentages are smaller than the proportion rejecting ads.
  • Sixty-nine percent of American adults feel there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them.
  • Ninety-two percent agree there should be a law that requires "websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual, if requested to do so."
  • Sixty-three percent believe advertisers should be required by law to delete immediately information about their internet activity.

Almost in tandem with the report’s release, however, one interested party, Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, accused one of the authors of the report of inherent bias and blasted the report for not mentioning the individual’s previous work in his bio.

“One of the study’s co-authors was Chris Jay Hoofnagle," wrote Cutts. "Hoofnagle has served as the senior counsel and director of the West Coast Office of [the] Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). You haven’t heard of EPIC? EPIC was the group that in 2004 argued that Gmail should be shut down.” 

Cutts also made the point that earlier this year EPIC asked the Federal Trade Commission to pull the plug on Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and the company's other web apps until government-approved "safeguards are verifiably established."

‘Most people know that the choice of questions in a study can make a huge difference to the outcome," Cutts concluded. "To fully inform the people who read the study, do I wish Chris Jay Hoofnagle had mentioned his connection to EPIC in the paper’s bio section? Yeah, I kinda do.” He added that, despite his complaints, “maybe this most recent study will be received as completely impartial.”