New Web Survey Shows Privacy, E-Mail Concerns -- And Trend Toward False Information

June 23, 1997

Users of the World Wide Web support government efforts aimed at protecting the privacy of confidential information, but believe the problem of unsolicited electronic mail -- known as "spam" -- can be solved by voluntary efforts similar to those used by traditional marketers.

These conclusions result from the analysis of comments made by more than 19,970 Web users responding to an on-line survey conducted in April and May 1997 by researchers in the Graphics, Visualization and Usability (GVU) Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

While few respondents said they liked to receive unsolicited e-mail, the survey found little support for laws against it. The solution favored by 38 percent of respondents was creation of an "opt-out" list of persons who do not want to receive the mailings. This would be similar to the process now used by telephone and direct mail marketers to avoid contacting persons who have indicated they do not wish to receive solicitations.

"People don't like it and they see junk e-mail as a problem, but they are not willing to deal with legislative solutions," noted Colleen Kehoe, one of the researchers conducting the 7th GVU World Wide Web Survey. "The vast majority of people just delete it and don't have any filters or other sophisticated means of dealing with it."

Just eight percent of the respondents supported legislation to ban the unsolicited e-mail, while 14 percent suggested some type of "impact fee" be levied on those sending the spam.

Legislation now prohibits junk faxes in many states, but Kehoe believes e-mail may be more complicated to regulate because it is difficult to show a real cost to the user. While downloading unsolicited e-mail may take longer and require time to delete, it does not consume paper and toner or prevent incoming calls like unsolicited faxes, she noted.

Dealing with the issue of spamming may also be difficult because there are few barriers to entry. Companies or individuals wishing to get into that business can purchase lists of e-mail addresses inexpensively and use a low-cost Internet service provider. While mass mailings violate agreements with most service providers, spammers often simply switch providers when caught.

"It's very easy for people who aren't willing to play by the rules to do this," Kehoe added.

Web users tend to be more protective of their e-mail accounts than their telephones or postal mailboxes. Kehoe believes that is because unsolicited paper mail and telephone solicitations have become accepted over time, while e-mail remains relatively new.

While the respondents looked to non-government remedies for junk e-mail, they agreed that government legislation should protect the privacy of information on the Internet. Kehoe suggests the vague threat of privacy invasion is more bothersome than the known problem of e-mail.

"When you give people a general concern about protecting their confidential information, which is an unknown risk that people can't assess, they choose government protection," she said. "When you talk about the specific issue of unsolicited e-mail, people know what that is and they can assess how much of a problem it is."

Results from the latest in a long series of on-line user surveys conducted by GVU researchers may be bad news for companies hoping to charge for access to the information provided on the Web -- and for organizations that rely on information furnished by Web users.

The survey found a growing number of users who admitted to falsifying information provided at Web sites.

"People say they falsify information because they don't trust the entity collecting it and they are not provided with a statement explaining how the information is going to be used," Kehoe explained.

Among the survey respondents, only 60 percent said they had never provided false information while registering at a Web site -- meaning 40 percent had given false information on at least one occasion. Nearly 15 percent of the users admitted to providing false information at least a quarter of the time while registering. Females were less likely than males to say they had falsified information, and older people tended to be more honest.

The GVU numbers are higher than those reported in a recent Louis Harris & Associates telephone survey, but Kehoe believes those respondents may have been less willing to admit their "bad" behavior to a survey caller.

Web users responding to earlier editions of the GVU World Wide Web User Survey have objected to paying fees for information made available on the Web. The new survey attempted to clarify the reasons why two-thirds of respondents said they would not be willing to pay for information.

Nearly half the respondents (44 percent) said they wouldn't pay because the information was readily available elsewhere. Another 29 percent said they did not want to pay for access to specific sites because they were already paying an Internet service provider to access the Web. Other reasons cited included cost of the information and poor quality.

"People seem to be seeing the Web as a convenience, and they were not willing to pay for that," said Kehoe. "This says that sites wanting to charge for access will need to have some unique content. People will only pay to get something they couldn't get elsewhere."

The results of this and earlier Web surveys may be purchased from the Georgia Tech Office of Technology Licensing (404-894- 6900) and are available on the Web at The next survey begins Oct. 10.

Though lacking the validity of a true scientifically-selected random survey, the GVU survey of Web users has provided an interesting and widely-respected "snapshot" of who's using the giant computer network. Data was first taken on-line in January 1994 when the project was begun by researcher Jim Pitkow.

Georgia Institute of Technology

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