3 Things Your Customers Won't Tell You About Privacy

Last Updated May 23, 2011 5:57 PM EDT

Earlier this week, I suggested that while proposed Do-Not-Track laws are good for consumer privacy, they might not be the best thing for your company.

Now that Sen. John Rockefeller's bill has been introduced, I can make it official: There's no clear benefit to businesses, at least none that I can see.

The proposed law would require the Federal Trade Commission to establish a rule allowing online users, including people using mobile devices, to opt out of tracking. If you allow yourself to be tracked, it can only be to the extent necessary to provide a service requested by you, and it must be anonymized or deleted as soon as that service is provided.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of Senate hearings on privacy and smartphones, tablets and cell phones.

I would have expected the back-and-forth to be a little funnier, with Sen. Al Franken chairing the committee, but it was serious and at times strained. Executives from Apple and Google were in the hot seat over their privacy practices.

What matters most?
All of this got me to thinking about the consumer perspective on privacy. How do mobile phone and Internet users feel? What aren't they telling their elected representatives?

I talk with consumers every day. Here's what I think they aren't saying to Sen. Franken and his cohorts:

We don't really care about privacy. While some consumers are deeply concerned about privacy â€" I know a few â€" a majority don't give it a second thought. They turn on their phones, fire up their Web browsers, and do what needs to be done.

That's not where it hurts (try service). The pain consumers feel, at least when it comes to their mobile devices, isn't privacy â€" it's their phone bills. Cell phone companies are legendary for their bad service and onerous contracts. And now two of the largest wireless companies, T-Mobile and AT&T are planning to merge (subject of another Senate hearing). That's where consumers could use a helping hand from government.

Easy trumps private. Time and again, consumers have voted with their wallet by giving companies who throw privacy concerns to the wind â€" tech behemoths like Apple, Facebook and Google â€" their business. Why? Because these companies make technology easy to use. That's more important than a site or service that respects your privacy, according to consumers.

This doesn't just apply to wireless and Web issues. Any businesses dealing with consumer privacy concerns can take these three unarticulated points to the bank.

Right or wrong, customers care more about functionality, price and user-friendliness than their privacy.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.

Photo: Adam Tinworth/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.