Washington, D.C., (Sunday, August 20th)- American Internet users want a guarantee of privacy online. An overwhelming 86% favor “opt in” policies that would require Internet companies to seek permission from users before they disclose personal information, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

This view challenges the policy just negotiated by the Clinton Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and a consortium of Web advertisers, which gives Web sites the right to track Internet users unless the users take steps to “opt out” of being monitored. Some 54% of Internet users say such monitoring is an invasion of privacy, compared to the 27% who agree with Internet companies’ argument that Web tracking can be helpful because it allows them to provide customized information to consumers.

“Internet users want the Golden Rule of the Internet to be: ‘Don’t do anything unto me unless I give you permission,’ ” notes Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “They want to have a presumption of privacy when they are online. They want to be in control of information about what they do on the Web and they want vengeance on those who breach their privacy promises.”

Online Americans are willing to give Web sites personal information in return for content they like – 54% of them have done that and another 10% say they would be willing to do that. “The most important point is that they want to be in charge of their online identities,” says Rainie. About a quarter of Internet users (27%) are hardcore privacy protectionists who say they would never give personal information to a Web site.

Fully 94% of American Internet users believe Internet firms and top executives should be punished if they violate users’ privacy online. If an Internet company violated its own privacy policy and used personal information in ways that run counter to a customer’s wishes, 11% of Internet users say the company’s owners should be sent to prison; 27% say the privacy-violating company’s owners should be fined; 26% say the site should be shut down; 30% say the site should be placed on a list of fraudulent Web sites.

These are among the findings in a phone survey of 2,117 Americans, 1,017 of whom are Internet users. The survey was conducted from May 19 to June 21 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Most Internet users fear that their privacy will be compromised, though the majority of them know little about how their Web browsing is monitored and hardly any have taken steps to protect themselves. Some 84% of American Internet users are concerned about businesses or strangers getting personal information about them or their families. Yet 56% do not know that Web sites and advertisers can track a user’s activities by placing computer code called a cookie on a visitor’s computer. That code makes the user’s computer identifiable and makes it possible to collect information about the Web pages she or he has visited at a site and, in the case of some cookies, over a whole range of sites. Only 10% of Internet users have taken steps to block the introduction of cookies on their machines.

“There is a yawning gap between what Internet users want and what they know how to do,” says Susannah Fox, the Director of Research at the Pew Internet Project and principal author of the report, “Trust and Privacy Online: Why Americans want to rewrite the rules.” “This suggests they would appreciate a concerted education effort on the basics of Internet tracking and some easy-to-use technological tools to take charge of their online privacy.”

A strong streak of individualism is evident when Americans are asked who would do the best job setting online privacy rules. Fully 81% of Internet users say there should be rules about how Internet companies can track users’ activities. Of those who say there should be rules, 50% say that people who use Web sites should set the rules; 24% say the federal government should set the rules; and 18% say Internet companies should set the rules. Other highlights from the survey:

Guerrilla tactics: A modest number of users have tried to keep their privacy by lying and a small number mask their identities. A quarter of Internet users (24%) have lied in order to avoid giving a Web site real information about themselves; 9% have used encryption to scramble their email; and 5% have used software that hides their computer identity from Web sites they visit. The one privacy-protecting strategy employed by lots of online Americans is the use of multiple passwords. Two-thirds of Internet users (68%) say they use different passwords when they register at Web sites.

Viruses are a problem, but otherwise, Americans have not been victimized in great numbers: 25% of Internet users have had a computer infected by a virus, most likely from an email; 4% of Internet users have felt threatened in some way while they were online; 3% of Internet users have been cheated when they tried to buy something online; fewer than 3% of Internet users suspect their credit card information has been swiped online.

Lots of online trust in evidence: Despite their anxieties, Internet users engage in a wide array of activities that require them to trust to an extraordinary degree in each other and the businesses that run Web sites. Some of the evidence:

  • 48% of Internet users have bought something online with a credit card; 55% have sought health information; 43% have sought financial information such as stock prices.
  • 36% of Internet users have gone to a support-group site or one that provides information about a specific medical condition or personal situation. Of those, 24% have signed in with their real name or email address, or written about their own experiences for other people to read.
  • 25% of Internet users have made friends with someone online that they never knew before in the offline world.
  • 26% of Internet users have responded to an email from someone they don’t know.
  • 22% have put information on online calendars and used online address books.The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a research center funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Washington-based project will explore aspects of the Internet that have not received sustained attention from policymakers and scholars: its effect on children and families, communities, schools, the work place, and civic and political life. Lee Rainie, director of the Project, is the former managing editor of US News & World Report. The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, a nonpartisan polling and research organization directed by Andrew Kohut.

    For a full copy of the report, and for more information about this survey and upcoming activities of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, visit our Web site at www.pewresearch.org/internet For soundbites, call 1-877-PEWNET1 starting August 20th, 2000, at 10:00 pm EST.