Internet users overwhelmingly enjoy free Web content supported by advertising, and they'd rather see advertisements targeted toward their interests than random ads, according to a survey released this week by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA).
While it may seem the popularity of free online content is a no-brainer, the DAA said it's important to drive home those points as a U.S. Senate committee hosts a hearing on voluntary do-not-track efforts next week. The DAA, a coalition of online advertising groups, operates a program that allows Web users to opt out of receiving targeted, or behavioral, advertising.
Nearly 69 percent of respondents to the survey said free content like news, weather and email is "extremely important" to the value of the Internet. More than 75 percent said they'd prefer ad-supported free content on the Web to paying for ad-free content. Just 9 percent said they'd prefer to pay for content.
Several lawmakers, including Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John "Jay" Rockefeller, have called for new laws that would allow Web users to stop websites and ad networks from tracking them online. Earlier this year, Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, introduced a bill that would require websites and networks to honor do-not-track requests from consumers.
"Online companies are collecting massive amounts of information, often without consumers' knowledge or consent," Rockefeller said then. "Consumers should be empowered to make their own decision about whether their information can be tracked and used online. My bill gives consumers the opportunity to simply say 'no thank you' to anyone and everyone collecting their online information."
The Commerce Committee will examine industry-led do-not-track efforts during a Wednesday hearing.
The survey shows that many Internet users understand that advertising pays for free content, said Lou Mastria, the DAA's managing director. Targeted advertising is particularly effective because about twice the number of people click through targeted ads than on random ads, he noted.
Many Internet users realize "there is no free lunch," Mastria said. "The reality is you need some funding sources."
The survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, conducted in early April by Zogby Analytics, found that nearly 41 percent of responders prefer ads targeted to their interests over random ads. Sixteen percent said they would prefer random ads, and 28 percent said they would prefer a mix of both.
Forty-seven percent of respondents said they wouldn't support a law that restricts how data is used for Internet advertising, if it potentially reduced the availability of free content. Only 22 percent said they would support such a law, with the rest unsure.
Asked who should be making the choice over what sorts of ads they see, 75 percent said the individual Internet user should be in control. Eleven percent said browser companies should make that choice, while 9 percent said the government should choose.
Zogby asked respondents about their biggest concern about the Internet, and only about 4 percent identified behavioral advertising. Nearly 39 percent said their biggest concern was ID theft, and 34 percent said viruses and malware. Another 12 percent said their biggest concern was government surveillance of data.
The survey didn't ask if Internet users would prefer to continue to get free content while not seeing advertising. A May study by ClarityRay, a company that helps Web publishers defeat ad-blocking software, found that more than 9.2 percent of Internet users in the U.S. and Europe were using ad-blocking software.
More than 18 percent of Chrome and Firefox browser users have ad-blocking extensions installed, according to the company.
Large-scale ad-blocking on the Internet is "untenable" for publishing companies, Mastria said. "Someone has to pay for that service," he said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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