Ofcom data says the public is tech savvy – so why does big tech rely on patronising policies?

The UK’s regulatory and competition authority for broadcasting and telecoms, Ofcom, publishes regular studies examining adult media use and literacy in the UK. The most recent of these studies, the Adults’ media use and attitudes 2022 report, was published in February 2022, and “provides evidence on media use, attitudes and understanding.” A survey of 3095 UK adults, the report is designed to be “a reference document for industry, stakeholders and the general public.”

This document provides key context for public opinion and perception of the web. Indeed, public opinion should be a strong guide for corporations and their policies; companies being responsive to demand shows a healthy market in which the public have meaningful choice.

It’s with this context that a disconnect appears – between public opinion and powerful decision-making organisations on the web. Organisations like the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) and Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF), alongside big tech corporations like Google and Apple, have adopted positions and produced technologies that run contrary to public opinion on privacy and personal data. The size and power of these organisations mean their positions threaten to marginalise public choice and harm competition on the web.

In short, the data revealed by OfCom draws the paternalistic privacy policies adopted by Google, Apple and standards bodies like W3C sharply into question. Given the evidence of public awareness around data collection, technologies such as those in Google’s Privacy Sandbox and Apple’s App Tracking Transparency are completely out of step with the public’s decision-making competence. 

Attitudes to personal data collection

72% of those surveyed – a clear majority – were happy for companies to collect information about them online. Many of these came with caveats – such as 38% of people wanting to be able to opt-out of data collection at any time, 36% wanting companies to be clear about how information is used, and 34% wanting to be assured their information is not being shared with other companies. 

Furthermore, 59% of those are not concerned with their data being shared with other companies (subtracting the 7% that ‘don’t know’ from the remainder of the 66% that did not answer that they wanted assurances around data being shared). This is even without stipulation in the example that data agreements and laws such as GDPR protect personal data and set rules around how it can be handled. This would indicate a strong level of consent and trust around data handling – bolstered more so by the protection of the law.

In comparison, only 21% were not happy for companies to collect and use personal data for any reason.

Awareness of Personal Information Collection

62% of those surveyed were aware that cookies are used to collect personal data from web users – the single form of personal data collection which most people are aware of. A further 51% were aware that smartphone apps and social media interactions can also be used to collect information, with 50% understanding that registering with a website could allow that site to collect information. Overall, 85% of adults surveyed were aware of at least one way in which their data could be collected; only 4% were not aware of any data collection methods.

There is also strong public knowledge of why personal data is collected – with 86% of people surveyed being able to identify at least one reason for their data being collected by companies online. The most well-known reason was for content targeting and advertising at 50%, with 42% of respondents naming profile-building for understanding user preferences and 37% naming site personalisation as other reasons that data might be collected. Again – only 10% of those surveyed did not know a reason why their data might be collected.

OfCom’s report does acknowledge a potential area for improvement, pointing out that, “only 28% were aware of all four” methods of data collection. This makes a case for greater education and transparency in order to empower the public to have control over their data, as a more complete understanding is vital for consumers to make meaningful choices.

What is not justified by this data is Google and Apple’s ‘privacy’-centric policies, that have made false technical distinctions around privacy, such as the prejudicial framing of the first- and third-party cookie debate. These policies restrict Google and Apple’s competitors, obfuscate conversation around privacy and data use, and substitutes consumers’ ability to provide informed consent for views enforced from the top downwards, which just so happen to benefit the tech companies backing them. 

Techniques to avoid personal information collection

Furthermore, the vast majority of the public are aware of steps that can be taken to avoid personal data collection if they are not comfortable with their information being collected. 83% of those surveyed have used at least one method to restrict or prevent data collection – with 58% being aware that declining click-box consent can prevent data collection, whilst 33% have used ad-blockers or similar software to prevent personal data collection. Of course, this assumes that there is a consumer interest in controlling innocuous data flows; and it seems that those who are concerned take steps accordingly, using the available tools

This data paints a clear picture: the vast majority of the public are well versed in how their data is collected, and given that knowledge, are able to give informed consent for data collection to take place. If they’re uncomfortable with data being collected, the majority are aware of at least one way to protect themselves and their data. What’s more, this data is further supported by other surveys – such as the American Enterprise Institute’s 2022 study in the same area – indicating this is not a one-off instance of the public’s mood around data and privacy.

The public are not ignorant of how the internet works, or of the trade-offs surrounding personal data collection. Moreover, many are perfectly happy for companies to collect their data as long as key criteria around transparency are met. Simply put, the data paints a picture of a well informed consumer base that are generally able to make their own choices. The data tells us that the public are aware of online data collection, and are more comfortable with it if their ability to choose is empowered by giving information and transparency. 

The whole pretence of big tech’s plan for the web rests on the idea that we’re fools and can’t be responsible for our own information. If the data proves otherwise, perhaps we should question why big tech wants to take control of our privacy and data preferences – and who ultimately benefits from that.

Header image courtesy of Headway via Unsplash (Licensed for free use under the Unsplash License)