85% of online consumers oppose Internet ad tracking, Consumer Reports finds

Vast majority are unwilling to trade personal data for targeted ads

Last updated: May 27, 2014 03:15 PM
Photo: Jupiterimages

By a ratio of more than 6 to 1, U.S. online consumers are unwilling to trade their personal data, even anonymously, for the sake of being served ads that online advertisers think are more relevant to them, a Consumer Reports nationally representative survey has found.

The finding contradicts a 2013 poll sponsored by the Digital Advertising Alliance that found consumers are “largely comfortable with the value-for-value exchange that interest-based advertising represents,” in the words of the Network Advertising Initiative, the online advertising industry’s self-regulatory association.

In the same Consumer Reports survey, nearly as many online consumers, 76 percent, said that it was of little or no value to them that advertisements displayed on the websites they visit, or the apps they use, push products and services that match their personal interests. About 20 million online consumers use software that blocks online trackers and 3.5 million use a privacy-oriented search engine, the survey projects.

“Advertising and consumers co-existed in the print world and the broadcast world for many years," Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in an e-mail. "But now that advertisers are deploying targeted ads on the Internet, consumers are pushing back.” 

Consumers have good reason to be wary of websites and apps that collect their personal data, according to a White House report on big data released earlier this month. According to the report, the huge collection of personal data by the online advertising industry does benefit consumers by subsidizing the cost of online services. But when data collected online is combined with data derived from the real world, the report found, it can cause many kinds of harms, including intrusion into private life, reputational damage, and discrimination against individuals and groups.

While most consumers don’t value targeted ads, there is little doubt that advertisers value such ads quite highly. A 2010 study by the advertising industry, for example, found that behaviorally-targeted ads generate more than twice as much revenue as nontargeted ads.

Rotenberg said the results of the Consumer Reports survey show that: “Given the choice, consumers clearly do not want advertising tied to their private information. The advantages of big data for marketing purposes have been oversold. That is one more reason Congress should act to put in place a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.”

To keep advertisers from tracking your online activities, use free software that works with your browser to block them, such as Ghostery, Disconnect, or DoNotTrackme. To keep them from tracking your web searches, use a privacy-oriented search engine such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage

—Jeff Fox

Editor's Note:

ConsumerReports.org uses tracking technology to understand how people use our site and to place and market Consumer Reports media products and services on other websites.

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