Customized Content Makes Users Uncomfortable

    April 10, 2008

A majority (59%) of U.S. adults are not comfortable when Web sites like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft use information about a person’s online activity to target ads or content based on a person’s interests, according to a new survey from Harris Interactive and Dr. Alan F. Westin, Professor of Public Law and Government Emeritus at Columbia University.

A quarter (25%) is not at all comfortable with such practices and 34 percent are not very comfortable. The remaining 41 percent who say they are comfortable with Web sites personalizing content is divided between 7 percent who are very comfortable and 34 percent who are somewhat comfortable.

Dr. Westin said," Websites pursuing customized or behavioral marketing maintain that the benefits to online users that advertising revenues make possible – such as free emails or free searches and potential lessening of irrelevant ads – should persuade most online users that this is a good tradeoff. Though our question flagged this position, 59 percent of current online users clearly do not accept it."

After four privacy/security policies were introduced, U.S. adults changed their views. By 55 to 45 percent, a majority of U.S. adults said they would be more comfortable with companies using information about a person’s online activities to provide customized advertising or content.

Once the privacy/security policies were introduced the percentage of those who are very comfortable increases only slightly to 9 percent from 7 percent. The percentage who are somewhat comfortable with the privacy/security policies has a larger increase to 46 percent from 34 percent.

Those who are not at all comfortable fall to 19 percent from 25 percent, and those who are not very comfortable drop to 26 percent from 34 percent.

Breaking it down by age the survey found a generational difference. Those who are younger Echo Boomers (aged 18-31) and Gen Xers (aged 32-43) are initially more comfortable with Web sites customizing content than Baby Boomers (aged 44-62) and Matures (aged 63 or older).

After being presented with the privacy / security polices, all generations level of comfort increase. Echo Boomers increase to 62 percent from 49 percent.  Gen X’ers increase to 56 percent from 45 percent. Baby Boomers comfort increases to 52 percent from 34 percent. Matures remain somewhat uncomfortable with Web sites tailoring advertising and content but the level of support rises from 46 percent from 31 percent.

Dr. Westin said," The failure of a larger percentage of respondents to express comfort after four privacy policies were specified may have two bases – concerns that web companies would actually follow voluntary guidelines, even if they espoused them, and the absence of any regulatory or enforcement mechanism in the privacy policy steps outlined in the question."