Leggo my data!

Web surfers want privacy online, but a new study shows they can't tell a cookie from a Cocoa Puff.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published August 21, 2000 6:43PM (EDT)

"I want privacy on the Web! But, hey, what's a cookie?" That's the crux of a new study that surveyed 1,017 Internet users, and found that they want much stricter privacy policies on the Web but remain largely unaware of the most common technology being used to track them right now, much less how to avoid it.

Some 86 percent of Internet users favor "opt-in" privacy policies, which would require a Web site to ask permission before collecting data about them when they visit the site, according to a study released Monday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, part of a think tank funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. (The project polled a total of 2,117 Americans, but not all were Net users.)

That's a much higher standard than the one in the policies that emerged from the Federal Trade Commission's recent online privacy decision, which put the burden on the Web surfer to "opt-out" of data gathering they find too invasive and allows Net companies and advertisers to essentially self-regulate their use of consumers' information.

"The strong urge of online Americans to protect their privacy and put the onus on companies to get permission before exploiting data or passing it along to others is a pipe dream considering the current privacy arrangements on most Internet sites," wrote the study's principal author, Susannah Fox, the director of research at the project.

In fact, only 27 percent of the Internet users surveyed bought the argument, made by the Net industry and advertisers, that tracking of personal information online helps the consumer by allowing the site to provide personalized information to them. And a whopping 94 percent said they wanted privacy violators to be punished, with 11 percent favoring jail terms for the sites' operators and 30 percent saying that the site should be put on a list of fraudulent Web sites. Too bad they have to rely on the likes of TRUSTe, the notoriously toothless nonprofit that purports to ensure that Web sites maintain privacy standards but never takes action against privacy violators.

But the same Net surfers who want more control over who gets their information and what they do with it seemed woefully uninformed about how that data is being collected today. The survey found that 56 percent of these same Web users answered the question: "Do you happen to know what an Internet 'cookie' is?" with a resounding "No." The same people who want their privacy to be better protected don't know how to protect it themselves by disabling cookies on their browser.

It's easy for those with more tech savvy to raise an eyebrow at such cookie cluelessness. But really, it's a sad example of how the current environment of industry "self-regulation" only works if we're prepared to be our own privacy police.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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