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Most US adults are uncomfortable that some websites use information about one’s online activity to customize website content or ads – but, if site privacy and security policies were improved, most would be comfortable with the practice, according to a new study.

Specifically, the Harris Interactive survey found as follows:

  • Six in ten (59%) are not comfortable when sites like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (MSN) use information about a person’s online activity to tailor advertisements or content based on a person’s hobbies or interests: 25% are not at all comfortable, 34% are not very comfortable.

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  • The remaining 41% who say they are comfortable with websites’ tailoring content is split between 7% who are very comfortable and 34% who are somewhat comfortable.

To study also sought to determine whether US adults would alter their views if various policy and security policies were adopted, based on possible self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising outlined (pdf) by the Federal Trade Commission.

Among the findings:

If four privacy/security policies were introduced, most US adults would become more amenable to being served content and ads based on their online behavior:

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  • By a 55% to 45% majority, US adults indicate that they would be more comfortable with companies’ using information about a person’s online activities to provide customized advertising or content.
  • Interestingly, once the privacy/security policies were presented, the percentages of those who are very comfortable increases only slightly to 9%, from 7%. The percentage who are somewhat comfortable given the privacy/security policies increases more significantly, to 46% from 34%.
  • Similarly, the proportion of those who are not at all comfortable declines to 19% from 25%, and of those who are not very comfortable declines to 26% from 34%.

Analysis of the by age indicates a difference of views among generations. Those who are younger Echo Boomers (age 18-31) and Gen Xers (age 32-43) are initially more comfortable with the notion of websites’ customizing content than older Baby Boomers (age 44-62) and Matures (age 63 or older).

After being presented with the privacy/security policies, all generations’ level of comfort increases:

  • Echo Boomers’ increases to 62% from 49%. Gen Xers’ increases to 56% from 45%. Baby Boomers’ comfort increases to a majority (52%) from 34%.
  • Only Matures remain uncomfortable with the websites’ customizing advertising and content, though the level of support rises to 46% from 31%.

The nationwide survey was designed in collaboration with Dr. Alan F. Westin, Professor of Public Law and Government Emeritus at Columbia University.

Dr. Westin commented: “The failure of a larger percentage of respondents to express comfort after four privacy policies were specified may have two bases – concerns that web companies would actually follow voluntary guidelines, even if they espoused them, and the absence of any regulatory or enforcement mechanism in the privacy policy steps outlined in the question.”

About the study: The Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States March 11-18, 2008, among 2,513 adults (age 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the online population. Respondents were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population.

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