19 Mar Privacy on Web a Big Concern for Americans
CIO Today, By Stephanie Clifford, March 18, 2009
As arguments swirl over online privacy, a new survey indicates the issue is a dominant concern for Americans, who live in one of the biggest wired countries. More than 90 percent of respondents called online privacy a “really” or “somewhat” important issue, according to the survey of more than 1,000 Americans conducted by TRUSTe, an organization that monitors the privacy practices of Web sites of companies like I.B.M., Yahoo and WebMD for a fee. When asked if they were comfortable with behavioral targeting — when advertisers use a person’s browsing history or search history to decide which ad to show them — only 28 percent said they were. More than half said they were not. And more than 75 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “The Internet is not well regulated, and naive users can easily be taken advantage of.” The survey arrives at a fractious time. Debate over behavioral advertising has intensified, with industry groups trying to avoid U.S. government intervention by creating their own regulatory standards. Still, some Congressional representatives and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission are questioning whether there are enough safeguards around the practice. Last month, the F.T.C. revised its suggestions for behavioral advertising rules for the industry, proposing, among other measures, that sites disclose when they are participating in behavioral advertising and obtain consumers’ permission to do so. One F.T.C. commissioner, Jon Leibowitz, warned that if the industry did not respond, intervention would be next. “Put simply, this could be the last clear chance to show that self-regulation can — and will — effectively protect consumers’ privacy,” Mr. Leibowitz said, or else “it will certainly invite legislation by Congress and a more regulatory approach by our commission.” Some technology companies are making changes on their own. Yahoo recently shortened the amount of time it keeps data derived from searches. It is also including a link in some ads that explains how the viewer’s browsing history resulted in the ad shown. Google, as it introduces its own behavioral advertising system, is allowing consumers to see what information it has gathered about them for advertising purposes. Given the concern over privacy in the TRUSTe survey, respondents’ knowledge of how to protect themselves online was relatively low, said Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group that supports a national consumer privacy law. “There does seem to be a disconnect in awareness,” Ms. Cooper said after reviewing the survey. Consumers may not know “how much data is collected, and what the data is. There may be a high level of understanding but not enough to allow them to make an informed choice.” For instance, only 15 percent of respondents read Web site privacy statements most of the time. Fewer than half frequently checked whether sites even had privacy statements, the survey said. Respondents used various tactics to be more anonymous online. Forty-one percent used a Web browser that deleted cookies and the history of the sites they had visited. About the same number used software to use the Internet anonymously. About one-third of respondents said they had chosen “do not track” options on Web sites that offered them. Eleven percent used proxy servers to mask the Internet addresses of the computers they were using, and 36 percent gave false information when registering for Web sites. More than half of respondents said government should be “wholly” or “very” responsible for protecting an individual’s online privacy. But there was a note of self-reliance, too: More than 75 percent of respondents said individuals themselves should also be wholly or very responsible for protecting their own privacy.