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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Surveys Reveal User Attitudes about Online Data Privacy and Accuracy

Few Americans willing to pay for greater privacy; most Facebook users unaware of how service categorizes them.

Two new surveys released today shed light on what users want and know about the data online services collect about them.

For Further Reading:

Data Privacy: 3 Best Practices to Enact Now

Opt-In Versus Opt-Out: The Big Question for Consumer Privacy

Privacy Laws Will Soon Be Inescapable

According to a national survey conducted by the Center for Data Innovation, Americans say they would prefer online services such as Facebook and Google to collect less personal data -- but few would be willing to pay for these currently free services in exchange.

About 8 in 10 people surveyed said they wanted online services to collect less data, and they'd be willing to put up with more ads (53 percent), see less-useful ads (74 percent), or lose a few features they currently use (54 percent). Asking them to open their wallets is another matter. Only about a quarter (27 percent) would be willing to pay a monthly subscription fee in exchange for greater data privacy.

Daniel Castro, the Center's director, notes that "limiting personal data collection would require tradeoffs. Overly restrictive privacy legislation would likely increase compliance costs and reduce companies' revenues, which could force ad-supported business models to start charging for subscriptions and paid services to raise their prices."

He added that the survey "makes clear that consumers do not want to pay that price for privacy, so policymakers should tread carefully to avoid unintended consequences that leave consumers worse off."

The survey also asked respondents what they would want in exchange for giving up yet more data. Even without gaining any additional benefits, 11 percent of respondents said they'd like Facebook and Google to collect more of their data. Just over 16 percent were willing to give up more data if ads were more useful, 17 percent if they'd get access to new features, and 19 percent wanted to reduce the number of ads displayed.

There's still no denying the power of "free" -- 17 percent would be happy to give online services more data if it meant "getting more free apps and services."

The Center's survey polled 3,240 U.S. adult Internet users in mid-December 2018. The survey results (including demographics) are available on the Center for Data Innovation website.

Focus on Facebook

When it comes to Facebook specifically, a new Pew Research Center study looked at data accuracy more than data privacy. The study found that half of Facebook users are "not comfortable" when they see how the service categorizes them.

According to Pew, "Facebook makes it relatively easy for users to find out how the site's algorithm has categorized their interests via a 'Your ad preferences' page." However, its survey found that nearly three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) said they did not know "this list of their traits and interests existed until they were directed to their page as part of this study."

After accessing the preferences page, 88 percent of Facebook users found that the site had been populated with data about them (one-third had 21 or more categories listed). Over half of users (59 percent) said the categories were accurate; over one-quarter (27 percent) said the list is "not very" or "not at all" accurate in describing them. After being made aware of this "interests" list, just over half of Facebook users (51 percent) "say they are not comfortable that the company created such a list."

Dan Goldstein, president and owner of Page 1 Solutions, a digital marketing agency, thinks "Facebook has an obligation to be transparent with users about what data is collected by its advertising platform and how the data is used. To Facebook's credit, the company is starting to make progress on this front. The ad preferences feature provides users with accessible information and gives them some means for controlling their privacy."

Facebook users bear responsibility, too, he says. "It is up to them to educate themselves on how the social network uses their data for advertising." Goldstein is troubled by the survey’s finding that three-fourths of the users didn’t know Facebook gathers their data and categorizes their interests for use in the ad network.  Users must take control of their privacy "and use the tools provided by tech giants to limit collection and use of their private information by advertisers.  

"Difficult as the decision may be, users who are uncomfortable with data collection may need to make a choice between privacy and the accessibility and connectedness afforded by major websites and smart technology. They can make the choice to stop using Facebook and other services, but it is very difficult to remain totally anonymous in a digital realm so interconnected."

The survey of 963 U.S. Facebook users at least 18 years old was conducted in September 2018.

About the Author

James E. Powell is the editorial director of TDWI, including research reports, the Business Intelligence Journal, and Upside newsletter. You can contact him via email here.

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