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Internet Users Oppose Being Tracked, Study Says

By MARKETWATCH.COM

Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 11:42 am

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Backer of Google Critic Supports Research Showing Users Don’t Want Tailored Ads

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Roughly two-thirds of Americans oppose being tracked on the Internet in exchange for receiving tailored advertising, according to a new study by scholars from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley.

The findings are likely to be poorly received by Internet giants including Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and others expected to increasingly depend on behavioral tracking and tailored online advertisements. Investors banking on companies’ ability to sharpen their advertising capabilities may also take heed.

"Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests," the study says. When informed about the ways marketers gather data on them to tailor those advertisements, the portion saying they don’t want to receive them reaches as high as 86%, according to the study.

The study comes as potentially restrictive online privacy legislation is poised to appear on Capitol Hill, following a lengthy period of debate. Internet companies and others have generally argued that they give users sufficient means to opt out of tracking of their online browsing if they choose – though privacy advocates and others say users should have the right to opt in to such programs. See related story.

"If Americans could vote on behavioral targeting today, they would shut it down," the study concludes.

While Yahoo is seen as a pioneer in the use of behavioral tracking to help present appropriate display advertising to its users, Google has more recently delved into the practice as it expands its own display advertising business.

Microsoft Corp.  also relies on tracking to fine-tune the online advertising on its network.  

By employing tracking – or surveying what an Internet user has been looking at on the Web in the past – companies hope to reach them with a car advertisement at a time when they might be pondering a new car purchase, for example.

The new study highlighting opposition to behavioral tracking was supported by the Rose Foundation, an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group.

The Rose Foundation funds one of Google’s most high-profile antagonists, Consumer Watchdog. Consumer Watchdog has consistently slammed the Mountain View, Calif.-based company for violating user privacy and other issues since receiving a $100,000 Rose Foundation grant last year. See related story.

Late last year, Consumer Watchdog announced that it had exposed Google’s "privacy problems," and had asked the Justice Department to block the company’s planned partnership with Yahoo based on related concerns. Google’s partnership with Yahoo was ultimately blocked by regulators, and Yahoo moved on to form a similar search and advertising alliance with Microsoft.

U.S. Internet users largely "stand on the side of privacy advocates" when it comes to online tracking, even when assured that they are being tracked anonymously, the study concludes.

"That is the case even among young adults whom advertisers often portray as caring little about information privacy."

Contact the author at: jletzing@marketwatch.com

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