U.S. Net Users Want Privacy Guarantee

A strong majority of U.S. Internet users want a guarantee from Web sites that their private information will not be resold, and more than 90 percent favor punishment for executives responsible for privacy violations, according to a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“Internet users want the Golden Rule of the Internet to be: ‘Don’t do anything unto me unless I give you permission,’ ” said Lee Rainie, director of the Washington, D.C.-based project.

Carrying the Burden

Americans also want to choose for themselves whether their information can be tracked, with 71 percent favoring “opt-in” policies that place the burden of keeping information private on Web sites and not on users, according to the report.

In an interview with the E-Commerce Times, Susannah Fox, director of research at the Project, said the study shows that the online industry is moving away from public opinion on privacy.

“People want opt-in but the industry is moving very strongly in the direction of opt-out policies,” Fox said. “Eighty-one percent want rules to be set on privacy and to be followed.”

News Heightens Concerns

The study, released Sunday night, offers new insight into just how deep a concern privacy is among Internet users in the United States. More than 2,000 people, including more than 1,000 Web users, were polled for the survey.

Several high-profile incidents have thrust privacy into the spotlight during the past year. In June, it was revealed that the Office of National Drug Control Policy was using Internet cookies to track Web users’ visits to drug-related sites, a practice that was later banned. Then in July, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) joined the fray over Toysmart.com’s effort to sell its customer information database as part of a bankruptcy sale.

Fear Runs High

The overwhelming fear of users is that businesses and others will get their personal information without the user’s knowledge (84 percent), followed by worries that hackers will grab credit card numbers off the Web (68 percent). Slightly more than half of those surveyed worry about receiving unqualified medical advice from the Net.

The percentage of people who are concerned about different areas of privacy, meanwhile, has increased in the past two years. For instance, 27 percent said they worry their e-mail will be read by others this year, compared to 20 percent in 1998.

Thirty-one percent now fear that someone will know which sites they visit, compared with 21 percent in the earlier study.

Still, the report notes that few users have been affected by privacy violations to date, with just three percent saying their credit card information had been stolen off the Web. In fact, Fox said that the rate of credit card fear is the same on the Internet as in the “real world.”

Harsh Repercussions

Americans are also in a “punishing mood,” the study argues, with 11 percent favoring jail time for executives of online companies that violate privacy rules, 27 percent backing fines, and 26 percent favoring shutting down the site. For a second offense, 26 percent favor jail time for the executive.

“The punishment numbers are especially interesting when you consider that right now, no one can be punished for violating their own rules,” Fox said in a reference to the Toysmart debacle.

However, while Americans want the burden of privacy protection placed on businesses, some are also taking action to protect themselves. The survey found that 24 percent had supplied false information to Web sites and 20 percent had set up a secondary e-mail account to protect their primary address from vendors.

Only five percent said they used software that hides a person’s true identity from Web sites.

“It surprised me how many people are concerned but how many people are also uninformed on their rights and the tools they have to protect themselves,” Fox said.

Online Tracking

The report notes that despite the myriad concerns about privacy, Internet use is growing rapidly. “Americans continue to trust e-mail, surf the Web for advice about intimate aspects of their lives, make friends online and turn to Web sites for health information, for spending their money and for material about finances.”

In all, 54 percent of Internet users say online tracking invades their privacy, but younger Web users are more likely to see the potential benefits of cookies and other tracking mechanisms. In fact, 36 percent of Web users under the age of 29 feel tracking improves a user’s online experience.

Additionally, a majority of Americans are willing to share personal information on their own terms. The survey found that 54 percent of online Americans said that they have willingly provided Web sites with personal information in return for content they like.

The nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project was formed by the Pew Research Center for People & The Press and plans to release between 15 and 20 Internet use studies each year.

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