Americans Can’t Consent To Companies’ Use Of Their Data

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Draper, Nora A
Waldman, Ari Ezra

Consent has aways been a central part of Americans’ interactions with the commercial internet. Federal and state laws, as well as decisions from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), require either implicit (“opt out”) or explicit (“opt in”) permission from individuals for companies to take and use data about them. Genuine opt out and opt in consent requires that people have knowledge about commercial data-extraction practices as well as a belief they can do something about them. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the commercial internet, the latest Annenberg national survey finds that Americans have neither. High percentages of Americans don’t know, admit they don’t know, and believe they can’t do anything about basic practices and policies around companies’ use of people’s data. FACT: By law a travel site such as Expedia or Orbitz that compares prices on different airlines does not have to include the lowest airline prices. 72% don’t know that; 49% of Americans admit they don’t know. • FACT: The Federal Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA) does not stop apps that provide information about health – such as exercise and fertility apps – from selling data collected about the app users to marketers. 82% of Americans don’t know; 45% admit they don’t know. • FACT: It is legal for an online store to charge people different prices depending on where they are located. 63% don’t know, and 38% of Americans admit they don’t know. High levels of frustration, concern, and fear compound Americans’ confusion: 80% say they have little control over how marketers can learn about them online; 80% agree that what companies know about them from their online behaviors can harm them. These and related discoveries from our survey paint a picture of an unschooled and admittedly incapable society that rejects the internet industry’s insistence that people will accept tradeoffs for benefits and despairs of its inability to predictably control its digital life in the face of powerful corporate forces. At a time when individual consent lies at the core of key legal frameworks governing the collection and use of personal information, our findings describe an environment where genuine consent may not be possible. Our portrait of a society underprepared for the behind-the-screen pitfalls of internet commerce is drawn from a nationally representative multi-mode survey of 2,014 U.S. adults conducted during Fall 2022 for Penn’s Annenberg School by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The aim of this report is to chart the particulars of Americans’ lack of knowledge about the commercial use of their data and their “dark resignation” in connection to it. Our goal is also to raise questions and suggest solutions about public policies that allow companies to gather, analyze, trade, and otherwise benefit from information they extract from large populations of people who are uninformed about how that information will be used and deeply concerned about the consequences of its use. In short, we find that informed consent at scale is a myth, and we urge policymakers to act with that in mind.

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