When asked, consumers uniformly rank privacy as an important concern. This
is especially so in light of the heavy reporting privacy issues have received
in the media. The actual behavior of consumers, however, often reflects mixed preferences
or even indifference to privacy. This challenges policymakers, who are often
very attuned to polling data.
It is extremely important to analyze polls in this area skeptically. Only
the most carefully written poll will accurately reflect where on the scale of
desires consumers place privacy. As discussed on other pages of this site,
personal information has value in the marketplace. It is like money. A poll
that asked whether people want money would tend to get a lot of affirmative
answers. A poll that asked how much money or privacy consumers would
trade for various goods would get much more nuanced results.
In the end, the best poll is actual consumer behavior. The free market is
an ongoing poll of consumer preferences. Businesses that find the right mix
of products, services, prices, and privacy protections will win in the marketplace.
Those that do not will go out of business. E-commerce, which is arguably the most
threatened by consumer privacy concerns, continues to grow.
Many online companies that have attempted to provide discreet privacy-protection
products to consumers, but they have failed to win significant market-share. This
means that consumer demand for privacy remains unproven. Either no company has come
up with a formula that satisfies consumers, or actual consumer demand for the privacy
that these products offer may be low.
Sales Statistics, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau
Privacy Firm Tries New Gambit by Declan McCullagh, Wired News
(November 1, 2000)
Canadians Like Sharing Data for Cash, post to cluebot.com
(October 6, 2000)
Beyond Concern: Understanding Net Users' Attitudes
About Online Privacy by Lorrie Faith Cranor, Joseph Reagle & Mark S. Ackerman,
AT&T Labs-Research Technical Report TR 99.4.3 (April 14, 1999)