Tech Bytes – Tid Bits in Tech News: Pew Study Reveals Chronic Technical Ignorance

Yesterday, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released its latest report: “Trust and Privacy Online: Why Americans Want to Rewrite the Rules.” The report’s findings were drawn from a 31-question survey of 2,117 Americans, of whom only 1,017 (48 percent) were Internet users.

Responses to the survey demonstrate an alarming lack of technical knowledge on the part of consumers. Also, privacy concerns among consumers who recently became part of the online community are a product of fears about the technology instead of actual instances of fraud or security violation. It is likely that ignorance is the main reason for such fears; only 43 percent of Internet users know what a “cookie” is, and only 10 percent of Internet users’ browsers are set to refuse these tracking files.

Responses to the survey demonstrate an alarming lack of technical knowledge on the part of consumers.

The survey also reveals that respondents have contrasting feelings on the subject that are difficult to reconcile. of people surveyed, 79 percent believe it “common for Internet companies to keep track of the Web pages you go to,” but only 31 percent “worry that someone might know what Web sites” they’ve visited. Yet, 65 percent feel online tracking by Internet companies is “harmful, because it invades (their) privacy,” and 63 percent said, “Internet companies should not be allowed to track the activities of people who visit their Web sites.”

This thought progression (companies track my online tendencies; it doesn’t bother me that companies track my online tendencies; tracking my online tendencies is harmful because it invades my privacy; companies should be prevented from tracking my online tendencies) defies explanation. And this doesn’t even mention that 69 percent of Internet users have clicked on an advertisement that was likely placed because of their online profile.

The survey was encouraging in one respect. When asked “Who do you think should have the MOST say over how Internet companies track people’s activities online and use personal information?” 62 percent answered, “people who use Web sites” compared to only 19 percent who favored “the federal government.”

Like anything else, there is a learning curve involved with Internet use. While over 62 percent of Internet users with less than six months experience are “very concerned” about online information collection, under 50 percent of users with over three years experience feel that way. The survey also concludes that the longer one has used the Internet, the more apt that person is to accept cookies. There is also a positive relationship between Internet experience and knowledge of available privacy-protecting technology.

The Pew study reveals that the best answer to the privacy question is more education. As users become more familiar with the Internet, they become less worried about sharing information or simply use privacy-enhancing technology. In neither instance is government action warranted.

To base privacy legislation on technical ignorance is to disregard the principle of consumer empowerment. Cookies serve targeted advertising, which benefits consumers by reducing prices and highlighting products that better match the users’ interests. As 62 percent of respondents agreed, consumers should be the ones to decide what information to share and with whom to share it. Only technology, as opposed to the government, can ensure this outcome.