CookieLaw Blog February 17, 2014

Personalisation vs. Privacy


Sixty-two percent of British consumers say they would rather have better online privacy than personalised services and recommendations.  Only 23% are happy sharing information about online activities in return for personalisation.

This is one of the findings of a new survey released by Ipsos Mori for Safer Internet Day on 11 February.  It is particularly significant because it flies in the face of much ‘received wisdom’, namely that most users are willing to trade data for personalisation. 

This general belief is in many ways the cornerstone of the argument for an opt-out model for online tracking – whether that be the opt-out for the Do Not Track standard, or the OBA privacy choices program.

Although the new findings lend weight to the counter argument that an opt-in model to tracking would be more in line with consumer preferences, there are inconsistencies between attitudes and behaviour in this field.

Context is very important in people’s attitudes.  A narrow majority are comfortable about anonymised data collection (leaving aside issues about whether this is possible), and they are relatively happier for companies to profit from their data if they can see benefits to themselves.  However, collection of potentially more sensitive information like location data has much lower acceptance rates.  This last does not look so good for the location based mobile advertising market, despite its current rapid growth.

Low opt-out rates in privacy programs, like the OBA privacy choices icon, are often cited as proof that ‘consumers don’t care about privacy, but I would suggest that other factors are at play here, ones that I would like to see tested.  These are that awareness of choice options, the method of presentation of choice, and the effect it has, also impacts massively on whether people exercise it.

I would argue, for example that exercising the OBA opt-out choice is both highly interruptive of the user experience and also of unclear benefit to the user.  Opting out doesn’t stop data collection, or being interrupted by ads, it merely means the ads are not targeted. This makes its privacy benefits minimal, or even illusory.  By opting out you get the worst of both worlds, your data is collected, but you see no benefit from it.  This is not the trade-off that people expect or value, so they don’t bother.

I think if the trade-off between privacy and personalisation online was more obvious, and the offer made in a more sophisticated way – it would have significant impact, and that would also inevitably lead to changes in how websites balance tracking and engagement. 

We could even see the emergence of a new Permission to Personalise model for online services that would improve the experience for all parties, including obtaining more accurate data.

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