Young and old alike object to online ad tracking

Think that young people don't mind having their behavior tracked across web sites? Think again. According to a new study, more than half of 18- to 24-year olds don't want ads tailored to their behavior.

The study, written by five professors from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley, found that two-thirds of Americans, regardless of age, object to marketers tailoring ads to their interests. And while there's a belief that young consumers are more open to marketers using behavioral targeting -- the use of information gathered from a consumer's web-browsing and even offline activity -- that's simply not true, the study found.

Eighty-six percent of respondents between 18 to 24, for instance, said it's not okay for marketers to tailor ads based on web sites other than the one they're visiting. That response is not far off from the 91 percent of respondents between 50 to 64 who object to the practice.

The study may come as a surprise to some executives working under the assumption that young people are willing to give up their personal data without a second thought. Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger, for instance, said at a conference in July that "kids don't care" about online privacy concerns, using his own adult children as an example.

Yet when asked about how their data is used, the study found, young people did have concerns and objections. "Young people don't think through the implications of what they are doing online, but when they are asked questions, they might be more careful," said Joseph Turow, lead author of the study and a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview.

The results, regardless of a consumer's age, illustrate that most consumers don't understand how marketers are using the data they collect and what restrictions are placed upon those companies. "We're tapping into something that's enduring in American society, which is that Americans don't understand the business behind the box, and they really don't feel a connection to the data marketers have about them."

Moreover, the study found that many Americans mistakenly believe the government restricts companies from selling data about consumers.

It's an issue that periodically grabs the attention of legislators and the Federal Trade Commission. The New York Times reported in August that David C. Vladeck, the head of the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection, wants to reevaluate how the agency looks at online privacy.

In the meantime, consumers need to educate themselves, says Turow. "Try to learn as much as you can about how web sites use your information, and more important than that, speak up about it," he advises.
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