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Most consumers would activate do-not-track privacy settings if they were 'easily available', according to Ovum survey

More than two-thirds of internet users would deploy 'do-not-track' (DNT) settings to restrict the way their personal data could be utilised if such a tool was "easily available", according to a new survey.06 Feb 2013

IT service analysts Ovum said that 68% of consumers would use a DNT feature in those circumstances, according to its survey.

The survey also revealed that only 14% of consumers believe internet firms are honest about how they use consumers' personal data, it said. The results show that a "data black hole" could emerge and have a "considerable impact" on targeted advertising, customer relationship management, data analytics and "other digital industries", it added.

"Unfortunately, in the gold rush that is big data, taking the supply of ‘little data’ – personal data – for granted seems to be an accident waiting to happen," Mark Little, principal analyst at Ovum, said in a statement. "However, consumers are being empowered with new tools and services to monitor, control, and secure their personal data as never before, and it seems they increasingly have the motivation to use them."

Ovum said that internet companies should make privacy tools available to consumers and use "messaging campaigns" in order to establish consumers' trust in their privacy practices. It said that the firms can help build that trust by being more transparent about their data collection practices.

"Internet companies need a new set of messages to change consumers’ attitudes. These messages must be based on positive direct relationships, engagement with consumers, and the provision of genuine and trustworthy privacy controls," Little said. "Most importantly, data controllers need a better feel for the approaching disruption to their supply lines, and must invest in tools that help them understand the profile of today’s negatively-minded users – tomorrow’s invisible consumers."

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is responsible for ensuring that web technology is based on an agreed set of technical standards, has been working on developing a new DNT controls system for operation within web browser settings. The W3C has previously said that DNT should not be switched on by default but should require an explicit instruction to begin working.

Microsoft, though, has developed its own DNT tool for its new Internet Explorer 10 (IE10) web browser. The DNT setting is automatically activated so that users that wish to allow websites and advertising networks to track their online activity in order to be served with personalised content have to alter the setting to allow that tracking to take place. The software giant has faced heavy criticism from advertising bodies over its implementation of the default DNT setting.

The US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) last year described Microsoft's decision as "shocking" and said it put the existence of content providers at risks because of lost advertising revenue. In addition, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) said that its members would not be considered to be violating self-regulatory rules that govern their online behavioural advertising practices if they simply ignore the DNT settings in IE10. Yahoo! has also said that it will not "recognise IE10’s default DNT signal".

EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes previously demanded that a new DNT standard be created that would enable internet users to indicate their consent or otherwise to the serving of 'cookies' by websites and advertising networks for the purpose of tracking those users' online activity. She said that the standard should be able to determine users' consent to cookies in a manner that complies with rules set in the EU's Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive.

However, last year Kroes indicated that she would accept a new DNT standard that did not fully enable website operators and advertisers to meet their legal requirements under the Directive. She said those firms may need to obtain valid consent "on top of or beyond implementing DNT" in order to comply with the rules.

Websites and third-parties, such as advertisers, often record users' online behaviour in order to serve personalised content, such as adverts, based on that behaviour. Websites can use a number of methods to collect user-specific data, including through the use of cookies - small text files that remember users' activity on websites. Operators sometimes pass on information stored in cookies to advertisers in order that they can serve as behavioural adverts based on users' activity and apparent interests.

Under the EU's amended Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive storing and accessing information on users' computers is only lawful "on condition that the subscriber or user concerned has given his or her consent, having been provided with clear and comprehensive information … about the purposes of the processing".

An exception exists where the cookie is "strictly necessary" for the provision of a service "explicitly requested" by the user – so cookies can take a user from a product page to a checkout without the need for consent, for example. The Directive amendments were introduced into UK law through changes to the UK's Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations in 2011. The Information Commissioner's Office is tasked with monitoring compliance and enforcement of the UK rules.