Americans Uncomfortable with Behavioral Advertising

A new survey shows privacy concerns cloud advantages of customized sites. 

Almost 60 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with Web sites like Google, Yahoo and MSN using data about a user's online activity to customize advertisements or content based on a person's interests, according to a new Harris Interactive survey.

Even after being introduced to four possible recommendations for improving privacy and security polices, the survey respondents were only "somewhat more comfortable" with Web sites' use of personal information. The recommendations were based on the Federal Trade Commission's recent publication of possible self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising.

Dr. Alan F. Westin, a Columbia University law professor who designed the survey for Harris Interactive, said in a statement that the lack of an enthusiastic response to the FTC's proposed polices may have hinged on two possibilities: concerns that companies would actually follow voluntary guidelines and, even if they did, the lack of any government enforcement mechanisms.

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

According to the survey, younger so-called Echo Boomers (aged 18-31) and Gen Xers (aged 32-43) are more comfortable with the notion of Web sites customizing content than older Baby Boomers (aged 44-62) and Matures (aged 63 or older).

After being presented with the FTC's proposed privacy policies, level of comfort increased for all generations-Echo Boomers to 62 percent from 49 percent; Gen Xers increased to 56 percent from 45 percent; and Baby Boomers' comfort increased to a majority (52 percent) from 34 percent.

Only older Americans remain uncomfortable with Web sites customizing advertising and content, though the level of support rises to 46 percent from 31 percent.