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Americans do not want to be given tailored advertising based on monitoring of their online behaviour, according to what its authors call the first independent, academically rigorous survey of consumers' views.

Research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and the Berkeley Centre for Law and Technology has found that 66% of adult US citizens do not want advertising to be tailored to what advertisers think are their interests.

Advertisers and publishers have grown increasingly likely to track web users' behaviour and to try to show them adverts that they think will be more relevant to them. Analysing relevance depends on the tracking of behaviour, which has raised questions of web users' rights to privacy.

The survey has found that two thirds of US web users do not want this to happen. It also found that once it explained the actual methods used to track behaviour that figure rose even higher, to between 73% and 86% after three common tactics were explained to them.

Publishers keen to increase advertising revenue and advertisers have claimed that tracking that does not identify users by name is acceptable to most people, because of the benefits that accrue from being shown more relevant ads. "To marketers, it is self-evident that consumers want customized commercial messages," the academics' report says. The survey's data appear to refute that argument.

"Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans (66%) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests," said the study. "We conducted this survey to determine which view Americans hold. In high percentages, they stand on the side of privacy advocates. That is the case even among young adults whom advertisers often portray as caring little about information privacy," it said. "Our survey did find that younger American adults are less likely to say no to tailored advertising than are older ones."

Other surveys have been conducted, but the academics from California and Pennsylvania said that they used methodologies that rendered their results less useful than their own study. The new study was based on phone interviews with 1,000 randomly-selected people which was weighted using census data to be nationally representative.

The study also found that even when tailored ads come with discounts or specially fashioned news, a majority do not want their web use to be tracked. Surveyed people also overwhelmingly backed legislating further to protect web users.

"69% of American adults feel there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them; 92% 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; [and] 63% believe advertisers should be required by law to immediately delete information about their internet activity," the report said.

Companies that track web use often claim that the tracking is anonymous because a user's name is not discovered or stored. Privacy advocates argue that some of the data that is gathered, such as the internet protocol (IP) address of a person's internet connection, is inherently personal and that its gathering and storage is no longer anonymous.

But the new study found that even if anonymity could be guaranteed, web users would still reject tracking ad tailoring.

"Assurance of anonymous tracking doesn’t seem to lower Americans’ concerns about behavioural targeting," it said. "They are quite negative when it comes to the general scenario of free content supported by tailored advertising that results from 'following the websites you visit and the content you look at' in a manner that keeps them anonymous. 68% definitely would not allow it, and 19% would probably not allow it. 10% would probably allow, and only 2% would definitely do it; 1% say they don’t know what they would do."

The strength of web users' feeling about the issue is reflected in the fact that 35% of them said that executives whose firms use information illegally should face jail time.

"This survey’s findings support the proposition that consumers should have a substantive right to reject behavioural targeting and its underlying practices," said the report.

The report can be read here (pdf).

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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