In Depth

Americans Say 'No Thanks' to Online Tracking, New Poll Finds--Most People May Want a 'Do Not Track' Option

By Edmund Lee
Advertising Age

Most Americans do not want to be tracked by online advertisers, according to a new Gallup poll released Tuesday.

Major marketers such as AT&T are increasingly tracking users' habits on the web so they can better deliver specific ads to specific kinds of people. The practice, known as behavioral targeting, has come under a renewed government scrutiny, specifically by both the Obama administration and the Federal Trade Commission.

When asked if advertisers should be allowed to match ads to people's specific interests based on other websites they've previously visited, a clear majority of 67% said no, compared with 30% who said yes.

Marketers defending behavioral targeting have argued in part that the public might not understand how much this advertising fuels free websites. "Because there's been so much scare-mongering, people have been frightened about behavioral advertising," said John Montgomery, chief operating officer of GroupM Interaction, a unit of WPP. "People are now equating it to something more pernicious."

Consumers need to realize that the growth and innovation in online advertising, which increasingly relies on behavioral targeting, underpins the free web that consumers want, Mr. Montgomery said.

But the Gallop survey suggests that Americans don't care much for that argument. When asked whether tracking people is justified because it "keeps costs down so users can visit websites for free," 61% of those surveyed said no, while 35% said yes.

It does seem to matter, however, who exactly is answering. When the Gallup survey respondents are broken down by age and income, those who were younger and more affluent were more likely to agree to being tracked. When asked if "invasion of privacy [by marketers] is worth it to allow people free access to websites," 40% of those age 18 to 34 said yes and 34% of that group said no. Among those who make more than $75,000 a year, 40% also said it was worth being tracked.

Both the Obama administration and the FTC have recently issued reports on the need for the industry to better regulate how advertisers track and target people online. Government officials said advertisers need to move more quickly to offer consumers a way to forbid marketers from tracking them online. The FTC suggested the implementation of a "Do Not Track" mechanism that would sit on web browsers and monitor which advertisers can and cannot keep track of people, based on their preferences. Both Microsoft and Mozilla, makers of the Internet Explorer and Firefox web browsers, said they are working on a "Do Not Track" feature. Microsoft recently introduced a function for the latest version of Explorer that lets users build lists of sites with which they don't want to share information.

The industry also already has a self-regulatory plan in place, called About Ads, which released its opt-out form a few weeks ago. GroupM, for one, plans to offer the program's opt-out icon to its list of around 200 clients that rely on behavioral targeting.