In Which Verizon Does Opt-Out
If you are a Verizon Wireless customer who wants to opt-out of Verizon's new mobile ad targeting program, click here.
Is it right for a company to automatically enroll its customers into new information sharing services? Whether it is right or not, the act of automatically enrolling customers and users into sharing information is disturbingly common. Facebook has famously done this multiple times. A few weeks ago, a judge allowed the use of automatic enrollment on email addresses involved in Barnes & Noble's purchase of Borders. And last week, Verizon sent an email to its smart phone customers, letting them know they are being automatically enrolled into the company's new targeted ad program.
Automatic enrollment is so common that people often refer to it by a shorter name: opt-out. Many consumer advocates favor opt-in, in which a company has to get a user's OK before it can enroll her in a new service. However, using opt-in makes it harder for a company to launch new services or start new advertising programs. So companies often use opt-out: they enroll users into new services and place the burden on users to remove themselves. Since the terms of service of most websites include a clause about how users automatically consent to changes in a site's terms and policies, opt-out is perfectly legal and an option available to most companies.
Opt-out is certainly questionable, but what makes this bad practice worse is the terribly unclear process most websites provide users who wish to out-out. Businesses know they need to provide users with a way to unenroll from new services unless they want to face consumer backlash, bad PR, or an investigation from the FTC. But, letting users opt-out is often against a business's interests. So, businesses will technically provide an opt-out process, but will put in no effort to make the process easy. The opt-out for Verizon's new targeted ad program is a great example of this - it takes ten minutes of clicking links, reading summaries, and reading legalese before the opt-out link is found buried deep in the company's terms of service.
Consumer advocates are constantly pushing policy makers and industry leaders to either force the use of opt-in, or make the processes of opt-out easy and clear. However, policy can be slow to develop, and industry has little incentive to use opt-in or easy opt-out if they don't have to. So for the time being, consumers have to remain on the lookout for changes to the sites and services they use, and be ready to search through terms and policies when they don't want to be involved in new services.
Update on 11/04/2011: Carnegie-Mellon recently released a report concerning the difficultly users experience in today's opt-out system. The report describes how study participants were often unable to find the opt-out option of major online advertising networks. Those who could successfully find the opt-out mechanisms spent upwards of 45 minutes searching for the correct link.