Pew Survey: Majority Favor More Online Ad Regs

A majority of respondents (64%) in a January 2014 survey say they believe the government should "do more" to regulate advertisers' use of customers' personal information, but more than half (55%) also say they are willing to share "some information" with companies in exchange for getting online services for free.

The respondents don't seem particularly concerned about information collection on their buying habits or media use. Those ranked last and second to last, respectively, on their rankings of information, with only 8% calling buying habits that very sensitive information and 9% saying that about what media they like.

Those are some of the takeaways from a just-released Pew Research Center survey, the first from a panel assembled to gauge the impact of the Edward Snowden leaks about government surveillance programs.

Eight out of 10 adults 18 and older believe that Americans should be concerned about government monitoring of Internet and phone communications, while even more, 91%, say consumers have lost control over how companies collect and use their personal information and most don't feel very secure sharing information on social media sites.

Only a little over a third of the respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online."

Another eight out of 10 (81%) say the don't feel very secure or at all secure sharing private information with a trusted person or organization using a social media site.

In addition, 68% say they feel insecure using chat or instant messaging. For text messaging, the percentage is 58%, 57%  for e-mail, 46% for cell phone calls, and 31% for landline calls.

There was not much of a difference by age, says senior researcher Mary Madden. "In general, I’d say the fact that there are relatively few consistent differences by age is notable," she said. "For example, given the common stereotype that young adults don’t care at all about their privacy, it’s interesting to see that they are just as likely as older adults to say that they “would like to do more” to protect the privacy of their personal information online.

"In addition, there are places where young adults are more likely than seniors to consider certain information to be 'very sensitive.' For instance, that’s true for the content of email (59% of 18-29 year olds see that as “very sensitive” information, compared with 42% of adults ages 65 and older) and the records of numbers called and texted from your phone (53% of 18-29 year olds see that as “very sensitive” information, compared with 36% of adults ages 65 and older)."

The report was released the same day the government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board held a hearing in Washington exploring the stakes involved in balancing protecting privacy with protecting a country's citizens against terrorism through surveillance and other government information gathering.

One panelist said the mosaic effect of data collection and targeting is powerful, which is the merging of one data point with other available data to infer things about a consumer. Say, inferring from the purchase of skin lotion that a woman is pregnant.

Another panelist said that strong privacy protections aren't bad for security because they make people more comfortable with necessary surveillance.

The survey is the first of a series of polls conducted with the same panel of 607 adults who have agreed to four surveys  over the course of a year. This first survey was conducted Jan. 11-28. 2014, of adults 18-plus and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points at a 95% level of confidence. That means if the survey were repeated multiple times, the results from 95% of those repetitions would fall within that margin of error.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.