Web users want greater respect from online data collectors

Tweet Historically, many internet users in Western Europe have had concerns about online privacy and data protection. Google memorably encountered legal battles in several European countries, including Germany and Switzerland, when it undertook comprehensive photography of streets and buildings for its Street View offering. In Germany, the web giant was forced to allow individuals and businesses to opt out of Street View, and hundreds of thousands did so.

In the UK, telecoms giant BT suffered a PR disaster when it partnered with Phorm, an online behavioral tracking firm, in a trial in southern England—without telling the 18,000 people whose online habits were under the microscope. This kind of approach pushes all the wrong buttons for many web users.

Consumers are not opposed to all data collection. According to a 2010 European Commission study conducted by TNS Opinion & Social, “Attitudes on Data Protection and Electronic Identity in the European Union,” 74% of EU consumers ages 15 and older agreed that “disclosing personal information is an increasing part of modern life.” Moreover, 58% agreed that there is no alternative to revealing personal information in order to get some products or services, and 29% said they didn’t mind disclosing some details to get a free online service like email.

At the same time, few Europeans seem to agree with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg that privacy is no longer a “social norm.” In the UK, two-thirds of internet users ages 16 and older polled for a 2011 Communications Consumer Panel study said more needed to be done to protect personal information online. Only 12% said they felt current privacy protection for web users was adequate.

Among UK social network users, worries were even more widespread. Some 90% of those sampled said they felt medium or high levels of concern about companies’ abilities to collect information about them from social sites.

Basically, web users want to make their own choices about what they reveal, and where. When BITKOM and forsa Institute polled a group of social network users ages 14 to 69 in Germany in 2011, the overwhelming majority said they wanted the ability to control numerous aspects of their privacy settings in those networks.

The discussion about how and where to draw data protection lines on the web looks set to heat up further in the coming months. One focus of debate is an EU Privacy and Communications Directive coming into force in May 2012. The Directive aims to ensure that consumers know when their personal information is being collected. Crucially, websites will need to get visitors to opt in before any cookies can be used to track their behavior.

Marketers and website owners fear this will make internet users turn away from sites that apply the Directive, especially if other sites do not. But firms that deal with European consumers will have little choice but to follow the new rules, or risk legal action and fines.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Europe’s internet users are not going to stop browsing the web, visiting their favorite sites and shopping online. Many web users are aware of the new EU restrictions and welcome them as a much-needed safeguard. Savvy brand owners will explain the advantages of cookies to site visitors and reward them for opting in. Dealing proactively and transparently with these legal requirements can be a big differentiator for brands, and may even boost customer loyalty.


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