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Privacy policies are read by an aging few

Data: Survey Monkey poll of 4,048 U.S. adults conducted February 6-11 with a margin of error of ±2.5 percent; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Most people say it's important to have a clear understanding of a company's privacy policy before signing up for its service online — but in practice, most people skip right to the "I agree" box on a privacy policy without actually reading it, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll.

Why it matters: Consumers are increasingly aware that companies share and sell their personal data in exchange for free services, but consumers' privacy concerns aren't translating into concrete action to protect their data.

By the numbers:

  • 87% say its either very or somewhat important to have a clear understanding of a company's privacy policy before signing up.
  • Older adults aged 65+ (91%) are more likely than younger adults aged 18-24 (75%) to say this is important.
  • Yes, but: 56% of respondents say they either "always" or "usually" accept the privacy policy without reading it.
  • Even those who say it's important to understand terms of service before signing up say sign up without reading the terms of service "every time" or "most of the time." (53%)
  • Again, younger adults are more willing to skip reading the privacy policies: 46% of 18-24 year olds say they will accept the terms without reading them "every time," compared to 15% of seniors aged 65+ who say they skip reading them.

The income gap: A majority (67%) of people with household incomes under $50,000 say it's "very important" to have a clear understanding of privacy policies before signing up for services. Meanwhile, only half (50%) of those with incomes of $100,000 and above say it's "very important."

Between the lines: If so many people want to better understand how companies use their data, yet so few are willing to actually read the policies, it could be that consumers care less about their privacy than they say they do.

  • It may also suggest that bombarding consumers with more consent or opt-in notices about data collection practices won't be effective.

The big picture: The public's indifference to privacy policies may stem in part from how long, legalistic, and unintelligible they typically are. And, as the New York Times editorial board pointed out in an opinion piece this month, many people feel powerless over them:

Why would anyone read the terms of service when they don’t feel as though they have a choice in the first place? It’s not as though a user can call up Mark Zuckerberg and negotiate his or her own privacy policy. The “I agree” button should have long ago been renamed “Meh, whatever.”
— NYT editorial

Go deeper:

Methodology : These data are from a SurveyMonkey online poll conducted among adults ages 18 and older in the United States. Respondents were selected from the more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Data have been weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 18 and over. The survey was conducted February 6-11, 2019 among 4,048 adults. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points and full crosstabs are available here.