April 1997: Commerce, Communication, and Privacy Online

Executive Summary

A Summary of the Findings

The results of Commerce, Communication, and Privacy Online are based on a national cross-section of 1,009 American computer users 18+ years.

1. Of this total group of computer users, 42% access the Internet at least once a month, and 33% use an online service. Overall, 25% of today's computer users say they both access the Internet and use an online service1, and 49% say they do neither.

1) The four online services are America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, or Microsoft Network. Just over half (5 I %) indicated they use America Online, 33% said Microsoft Network, 11% said CompuServe, and 7% said Prodigy. One in ten online service users (10%) said they don't know which online service they use (Table 1.2). Unlike Internet service providers who only provide access to the Internet, online services also provide unique online environments which are entirely separate from the Internet.

2. Half of those computer users who do not currently access the Internet say they are likely to start in the next year. A similar pattern is observed for those who do not currently use an online service. The factor most likely to influence whether or not the nonusers join the online world is privacy protection.


The Major Findings

Online Privacy Concerns

3. Fears about online privacy invasions greatly exceed the actual occurrence of those invasions many people worry about the security and confidentiality of their personal information in an online environment, but very few report they have actually been victimized while online.

4. Computer users are more concerned about the conf~dentiality of communicating by e-mail over the Internet than they are about other widely used forms of communication.This concern is greatest among computer users who do not actually communicate via e-mail -they are more than twice as likely as e-mail users to be concerned about this form of communication.

5. When it comes to the handling of confidential information, computer users have less confidence in online companies than they do in other institutions.

6. Computer users' privacy concerns translate into privacy-sensitive behaviors. Of those who use the World Wide Web and have been asked by a site to provide information,the majority have at some point declined to give that information. The majority of those who did not provide the information say they would have provided it if they were aware of, comfortable with, the information use policies of those sites or if they were more familiar with those sites.

7. Privacy-sensitive online behaviors are practiced among a small proportion of Internet users.

8. Less than one-third of Web site visitors have heard the term "cookies."2 Nearly all Web site visitors feel strongly that Web sites should give users advance notice and gain the users' permission before using a cookie tagging process.

2)Cookies" is a technology that allows Web sites to place a unique identifier on a user's hard drive so that information about that user's previous visits to and activities at the site can be recalled at subsequent visits.

Marketing to Computer Users Online and Off

9.Very few computer users who receive unsolicited e-mail messages offering to sell them products and services welcome them, and more than one-third of e-mail users would want their addresses removed from all offers if possible. Acceptance of direct mail offers in the Online world is much higher.

10.Computer users express more interest in Internet software products that will help them become more familiar with the companies they deal with online and with their information use policies, than they are about other Internet software products.3

3)All questions about Internet products and services were prefaced with the statement, "I am going to ask you questions about some Internet products and services. I am not selling or promoting these products and services. I only want to know your opinions of them."


Group Differences: Light v. Heavy Internet Users

11.Heavy Internet users (those who use the Internet for five hours or more each week) tend to think differently, and experience their online environment differently as compared to lighter users (those who use the Internet for fewer than five hours each week). Their interests in Internet software products also differ from those of lighter users.


Group Differences: Males v. Females

12.Compared to males, female computer users are less likely to have heard, read,or seen a great deal about the Internet, and are less likely to access the Internet. Of those who are Internet users, females spend less time on the Internet. Females also express greater concern about many online-privacy related issues.

13. When presented with three alternative government approaches to protect privacy on the Internet at this time, the majority of computer users want the government to pass laws now.

14.The computer users most in favor of government regulation are those least familiar with the Internet. Internet users especially those who spend a lot of time on the Internet are relatively less in favor of such regulation when compared to computer users who don't use the Internet.

15.Computer users who are not online are nearly twice as likely as online computer users to feel that technology is out of control.

16. Lower cost, control over businesses sending marketing messages, and ease of use are other factors that computer users say will increase the likelihood that they will begin to use the Internet or an online service.

17. The majority of computer users think it is unacceptable for companies to ask children on the Internet to provide personal information.

18. Computer users are divided, however, on whether there is or is not a significant difference between advertisers who collect personal information from children for marketing purposes through sources like comic books, magazines, and kids clubs, and collecting similar information from children using the Internet.

19. The majority of computer users are not particularly trusting of Internet companies that market to or collect information from children. Additionally, nearly all feel that if these companies violate their stated policies, they should be held legally liable.