FTC: Consumer Privacy Comments Concerning The Direct Marketing Association--P954807
PRIVACY CONCERNS AND THE
Stanley B. Greenberg, Chairman
Research sponsored by:
Prepared for the
The debate about privacy and the Internet is being shaped by major crosscurrents in American society that have little to do with either privacy or the Internet. The crosscurrents involve, not so much constitutional and technological issues, but more what is happening to American families and parental authority in a rapidly changing society. Nearly all the participants in this group project expressed worries about the country's moral decline and the breakdown of the family. They saw most young people as unguided by moral principles, and, therefore, vulnerable to bad influences. Parents are working longer hours and more jobs and, thus, many are inattentive to their children, leaving them without strong role models. Meanwhile, the participants saw a dangerous world closing in -- violence, bombings, drugs, and sex -- leaving people with fewer and fewer safe places, whether school, neighborhood or the street.
That is the context for this discussion of the Internet. Not surprisingly, parents are deeply worried about this social decay, and they are looking for somebody to impose order. They would like to do it themselves. They would like to take on the responsibility for teaching their children to make the right choices. But parents feel increasingly powerless before this world, and they are looking for help. These crosscurrents are producing genuine worries and frustrations. Indeed, they are producing quite understandable calls for rules and limits and for new tools that will strengthen the hand of the ordinary citizen. Skeptical about both government and business, people are groping for ways to help and protect their own families.
To help understand the issues of privacy, data collection, direct marketing and the Internet, the Direct Marketing Association commissioned Greenberg Research to conduct a series of focus groups. This was a very broad and complicated charge and required nine focus groups nationwide, conducted between July 23rd and July 30th, 1996. The groups were separated by gender, family status, education level and computer/Internet experience to ensure homogeneity and to facilitate discussion. The description and location of groups is set out below:
Each group included nine to ten participants and was facilitated by a professional moderator who conducted the discussions in conventional focus-group facilities. The topics covered in these discussions fell into three broad areas: first, traditional direct mail and the collection of data, second, data collection and children, and third, advertising, children and the Internet. This project breaks new ground, providing some of the first public focus group research on the way ordinary Americans are dealing with the Internet. This report on the research, prepared specifically for the Federal Trade Commission, reveals a public with real concerns and a lot of common sense, as it contemplates how best to advance the needs of their families.
A Sense of Proportion
At the very outset of every focus group, we asked whether things in the country were moving in the right direction or whether things were getting seriously off track. The discussion was dominated by worries about crime, violence, drugs and moral decline. People spoke about the family no longer playing its traditional role and children no longer bound by a sense of responsibility and values. Parents seemed almost helpless to ensure that their children would get a good start in life. When they were not talking about the family, they were talking about pressures on the family -- not being able to keep up with the bills and not being able to afford things, like health insurance.
A few people mentioned bomb-making and terrorist groups operating on the Internet. Nobody mentioned privacy issues. So when we broached issues, like direct mail, data collection, lists and the Internet, people expressed views to be sure, including annoyance, but they also offered a sense of proportion. These were not problems on the scale of crime, jobs, and family break down. That sense of proportion proved important when people contemplated the role of government and the role of business and the right balance between them. For many people, issues like direct marketing and list sales did not take on an importance requiring a governmental solution.
In the groups, people understood that data collection and direct marketing by mail are part of a complex and pervasive system that will be difficult to control. Government has a lot to do, many thought, without devoting its resources to regulating something that, in the end, is not that big a problem.
When we asked what people thought of the idea of the government taking action to regulate the selling and giving out of names, the participants met the idea with a chorus of No's.
Government intervention in the area of traditional direct marketing was viewed as out of proportion to the scope of the issue.
Self-Regulation: Code of Ethics
The participants who were cautious about the government's capacity to regulate effectively in some areas were often cautious as well about business' capacity to act effectively and even-handedly. Nonetheless, they were open to initiatives from business. People said there is a need for a watch dog somewhere that sets rules and exposes abuses, particularly because they were reluctant to turn to government in an area better suited to self-regulation.
The participants in the focus groups constantly grumbled about some of the mail they received, but in the current environment, were more inclined to see business take the lead in improving things.
Collecting Information on Children
The issue of data bases and children elevates the direct marketing issue to a different level and gets it closer to becoming embroiled in the whole issue of parental authority. The problem is not top-of-mind, that is, nobody in the nine groups brought up the problem, even when discussing children's mail and data bases. People knew there are companies that are trying to sell children's things, but they were not greatly troubled by that knowledge.
But there is little resistance to the idea that there could be a problem, given the bizarre things that happen to children in our society. Parents believe they cannot be too careful at a time when parents have so little control over their children. The participants were open to regulatory approaches and were relieved that somebody is thinking about the problem.
But amidst those worries, many of the participants expressed a sense of proportion about the threat. This is a potential problem, but bad people have many more effective ways to get to your children:
The discussion of ways to protect children from dangerous people led them back to the original problem -- the social decay and breakdown of the family.
Children and the Internet
The excitement about the unlimited possibilities on the Internet was largely reserved for the younger on-line users, both men and women. These were the people who talked about "looking for a job on it right now"; "It's progress, it's technology. You cannot stop it"; "It's excellent." They spoke of opportunity and growth and resisted the instinct to place controls on it.
But that unmixed positive response was not typical of all of our groups. Most of the participants expressed caution, worry, and fear. In the minds of ordinary citizens, particularly parents, the Internet is the new frontier of threats to families, parents and children.
Parents are worried that the world of the Internet is a world without rules, controls, and limits. No one, they thought, is responsible.
The Internet was seen as uniquely intrusive, capable of reaching into homes in an disarmingly intimate way. When on the Internet, your family is exposed. After viewing a video clip that described the way companies gather information via the Internet, respondents offered the following observations:
In this research, parents identified three main problems that crowded out almost all others when presented with a list of ten things that could happen to their children on the Internet. These are listed below in order of importance:
The last was mainly about exposure to danger, not to marketing. For example, few of the participants checked "companies gathering information on children" as a problem.
People are simply worried to death that their children are going to be exposed to awful things, unknown to them and outside their control.
As we can see, people can recognize the benefits that accrue to children on the Internet, but because of some of the things that have happened to children today, they are fearful of having no rules and no limits on the Internet. Parents are looking for ways to keep their children safe.
Advertising on the Internet
Advertising on the Internet is not currently seen as a major problem for people. People's exposure to advertising is relatively new and undeveloped and few people spoke of it as a real problem. At this time, many of the participants had not yet experienced advertising via E-mail, so we might be slightly ahead of the curve. , the topic of advertising on web sites was seen as relatively benign. Indeed, most of our online users were focused on the problem of download time. They were wary of clicking on things that would tie them up, particularly advertising graphics. The participants felt quite comfortable with their ability and power to decide what to read and not read. Thus, their attitude toward advertising barely reached the level of a low-level annoyance: While open-endedly sharing their impressions of the Internet they began to talk about advertising.
Thus, we could find very little worry about advertising directed at children on the Internet.
Creating Rules and Order
The young, online users were very skeptical about the government's ability to manage the Internet: "It's too big. As far as I know, it's not physically possible to regulate the Internet"; "Not the government. The government should not touch the Internet. I think if the government gets involved in the Internet, they're going to just go way overboard"; "the Internet is growing so rapidly. That's part of the excitement of the Internet and that the government shouldn't step in and stop it so that it just kind of fizzles out." (Female online users)
But virtually all the other participants in our groups wanted to see somebody -- anybody -- create some rules and bring order. In the face of nobody addressing the broad range of Internet issues, there was a high receptivity to new government regulations, from indecency to privacy; but there was also a high receptivity to industry initiatives that define legitimate information-collection practices, expand opt-out opportunities and empower parents. People were simply hungry for evidence that somebody was going to bring some order to this dangerous world.
When presented with regulatory initiatives on the Internet, people reacted positively, though still grudgingly about the effectiveness of government:
But people also reacted very positively to the idea of industry and business initiatives that would expand people's capacity to protect children, create rules and direct their children in the right direction. Indeed, we found the participants looking for ways to control access before we even introduced the concept of parental control software.
But then we described parental control software: "Parental control software helps parents control their children's experience on the Internet. It gives parents the ability to limit the amount of time children spend online and helps them control the times of the day children are allowed to be on the Internet. This software enables parents to restrict access to certain parts of the Internet which they may feel are inappropriate for their children, including certain games or commercial areas. It can also prevent children from sending our their names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal data online."
It produced a sense of relief that parents could get control of this unknown world. Parental control software created a feeling that parents could be parents again.
The strong sense of relief that came with the idea of parental control software suggests that people are looking for tools both to manage the new world of the Internet and to protect their families. They are open to initiatives from business and the private sector that show somebody is responsible and that help parents take responsibility for the welfare of their children.