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Source: ZD Net

Posted on May 9, 2000

      Everyone talks about consumer privacy issues on the Internet, but much of the conversation is in the abstract. Few are making the time or spending the resources on a reality check. That's why we at FamilyPC were so intrigued when the folks at AT&T Labs-Research called to solicit the help of our Family Testers in surveying attitudes about information privacy. Finally, someone who wanted to talk to real people!

      One of the interesting things about the survey is that instead of just asking abstract questions like, "would you give out your phone number to someone on the Web," the survey is scenario-based. You are given realistic examples of how your personal information might be used, and the types of incentives sites may offer in order to obtain that information.

      So, for example, scenarios included getting financial advice or getting local weather forecasts based on relaying personal information to a Web site.

      Why does AT&T care? Well, there are lots of reasons. But in this case, AT&T, and other members of the W3 consortium (an international organization of technology-industry members which promotes standards for the Web), have been busy dissecting the pros and cons of three paths to protecting privacy: legislation, a privacy seal program, and site-specific privacy policies. They hope that the research gleaned here will help develop better tools for negotiating a peace between individuals who want to keep their privacy on the Web, and sites that can offer better information as they know their customers better.

      One of the major findings in the study is that there doesn't seem to be any one-size-fits-all solution for addressing people's varied privacy concerns. These results give W3 more fodder to proceed on its course of developing a solution that could be tailored to the privacy preferences of individuals. Clearly, you'll see that the issues are complex and the answers are not simple.

      The AT&T study was done with the participation of researchers from Harvard/MIT and the University of California at Irvine. I've paraphrased the topline findings. I'd like to express my personal thanks to AT&T for turning to our family testers for input and to our testers for contributing to the discussion of privacy on the Internet.

Internet users value their anonymity

      What sort of information are people comfortable with sharing? A majority felt comfortable giving away the sorts of things that might be used in an aggregate profile (like personal income or investment information), provided it was not tied to their identity. A majority would give away information in order to get better service (like entering their zip code to receive a weather report), but less than half of the respondents said they'd give up the benefits offered if they were also asked to provide more personal things, like their name and address. Some pieces of data -- like telephone numbers-- are more personal than others

      Most everyone is comfortable providing preference information to Web sites. Reporting preferences like favorite TV show (82%) and favorite snack food (80%) posed no problem. Even reporting e-mail addresses (76%) seemed relatively ok. But when asked about postal address, health, income, or phone numbers, the number of those who felt comfortable sharing that information fell rapidly. Many factors are important in decisions about information disclosure; privacy seals aren't as important as many want them to be. In one of the most complicated sections of the study, people were asked whether they would want a browser that could specify their personal privacy preferences to a particular site. While the answer was "yes," it became clear that most have little faith in the type of privacy policies and seals that are being used on the Internet right now, and most weren't sure how the privacy seal programs work.

Acceptance of the use of cookies and other types of identifiers varies according to their purpose

      Cookies are not particularly well-liked, and clearly not well-understood by the respondents. That said, the notion of a personal identifier has merit based on the specific situation. A high number (78%) said they would definitely or probably agree to Web sites using persistent identifiers to provide a customized service. Fewer (60%) agreed if that service were advertising-based, and still fewer (44%) agreed if the identifier were to be shared across a number of Web sites.

Internet users dislike any automatic data transfer

      Ask them before you do anything -- that was the takeaway. Respondents said that they did not want tools to transfer information about them to Web sites automatically. When asked about several possible browser features that would make it easier to provide information to Web sites, 86% of respondents reported no interest in features that would automatically transfer their data to Web sites without any user intervention.

Internet users dislike any unsolicited communications

      61% of those respondents who said they would be willing to provide their name and postal mail address to a site in order to receive free pamphlets and coupons, said they would be less likely to provide the information if it would be shared with other companies and used to send them additional marketing materials.

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