Poll: Consumers sharply divided on privacy issue

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Despite festering debate about protecting consumers' privacy on the Internet, current Web users actually are sharply divided on the issue.

This attitude gap became apparent this month when online researcher i-Novation released a survey conducted for Advertising Age mapping consumers' feelings about online privacy violations and what safeguards they would deem appropriate.

Opinions registered at extremes ranging from total disinterest to near-paranoia about how marketers are gathering consumer information online. Opinions were sharply divided over whether the government should play a major role in protecting consumer privacy online.

The most valuable insight from the survey is that Web-site operators, when formulating privacy policies or telling users how marketing and e-commerce information will be used, run the risk of alienating a large chunk of their audience, said Howard Moskowitz, president of i-Novation. "It's a mistake to assume you're talking to a homogeneous audience when addressing online consumers about privacy issues."

The October survey got responses from 698 online users, who rated the appropriateness of different vignettes describing privacy issues and solutions. Results were weighted to reflect the current Internet population, he said.

"The survey revealed there are basically two deeply entrenched groups with totally opposite opinions about Internet privacy, and if you send a message that allays the fears of one group, you will very likely offend the other group," Mr. Moskowitz said.

`FIND THE RIGHT WAY ... AND SOON'

The survey examined negative perception about marketers violating consumers' privacy online.

"Noises about consumer privacy are getting louder at a time when we're trying to win over the other 50% of people who are not already on the Internet," he said. "If we ever want to cross over the gap and reach the majority of consumers online, marketers have to find the right way to approach the touchy issue of privacy, and soon."

Respondents fell into three camps; each group had fairly consistent ideas about Internet privacy.

The first group was classified as "disinterested" (37%) in Internet privacy concerns. They scarcely cared about how online privacy might be regulated in the future. "People who don't care one way or the other about privacy are a wash. Don't worry about them; don't try to wrap your privacy policies in knots to please them," Mr. Moskowitz advised.

The second group was classified as "risk-averse" (35%) and warrants serious attention from marketers. People in this group are highly suspicious of online marketers' motives and expect protection from the government, Mr. Moskowitz said. "People who are risk-averse want reassurances of security from online marketers and they showed a strong preferences to messages containing the word `protection.' " Such users responded positively to a vignette describing "stiff penalties" privacy violations and "Federal Trade Commission protection."

WE DON'T NEED NO FTC

The third group was classified as "individuals" (28%) because of their tendency to want personal choice in privacy matters and their aversion to government involvement. "Individualists don't want government intervention; they want to control their own destinies and personally choose what information they will give out to marketers," Mr. Moskowitz said.

Disregarding those that were entirely "disinterested" in the issue, "About half of the online community is very upset about marketers violating their privacy and want government intervention," Mr. Moskowitz said. "The other half welcomes marketers gathering information about them, as long as the user has total control over the process."

The survey also confirmed i-Novation's theory that people who are less experienced in using the Internet are the most nervous about privacy violations.

"We need to be very careful about addressing the privacy concerns of the next wave of new Internet users, and shape marketing and privacy policies accordingly," Mr. Moskowitz said.

The dilemma Web site marketers face is whether to allay consumers' fears with tough-sounding policies supportive of government involvement or self-supervised privacy policies that would appeal to the more experienced -- but smaller -- group of users.

The best solution for marketers weighing their options is to try to tailor privacy policies to suit the majority of their users, he said.

"Web site operators are better off sending a strong message about where they stand on privacy policies than some middle-of-the-road message, because users are going to be on one side or the other for the foreseeable future," he said.

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