UK internet users say they would be prepared to hand over a combined £1.1 billion per year to Facebook and Google in return for greater control over how their personal data is collected and used, a new report from Which? has found.
The consumer champion has repeatedly found that many people are uncomfortable about the amount of personal data that is collected about them while online, and want to have greater control over its collection and use.
Which? believes that consumers should have the right to choose not to receive targeted adverts, with platforms having an obligation to provide their core service without collecting any data beyond that which is necessary for the performance of the contract with the user.
In groundbreaking new research, Which? worked alongside Accent and PJM Economics to calculate the value consumers would put on being able to block targeted ads entirely, or the alternative of receiving a reward for seeing them.
The research found that while many people are concerned about sharing their personal data, a lot of consumers are open to seeing targeted adverts – particularly if they come with the offer of a payment or other financial incentive, such as an Amazon voucher.
Given a hypothetical choice of receiving targeted adverts or paying to receive generic ads, respondents said they would be prepared to pay an average of £1.09 a month to only receive generic adverts and for their data not to be collected. Aggregating this for all UK users of Google and Facebook for a full year gives a total estimated value for this choice of £1.14 billion.
When asked to choose between generic adverts or targeted ads and receiving a monthly reward, the average respondent said they would need to receive rewards worth £4.03 per month to choose targeted ads. Aggregated across the UK, this gives an annual total estimated value of £4.21 billion.
In the absence of any financial incentive, only a quarter (27%) of Google and Facebook users said they would prefer to receive targeted adverts. However, when a financial incentive was added, that figure went up to four-fifths (81%).
Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the larger the financial reward, the more likely consumers were to choose targeted adverts.
The government is currently consulting on what powers to give to the new Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which operates out of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Which? is recommending that these powers include the ability to compel the biggest online platforms to give consumers a simple and understandable choice to control how their data is collected and used.
Both platforms do offer services which allow users to control some elements of data collection and use. For example, Facebook’s ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ tool allows users to monitor and control online tracking. However, Which? research found that only 11 per cent of Facebook users were aware of this tool.
Google offers users more control as they can choose not to receive personalised adverts, but concerns were raised by the CMA relating to the complexity faced by consumers wanting to exercise this choice. Which? research found that only 17 per cent of Google users had changed their settings and some of these clearly demonstrated they did not understand the choice they had made.
Some people feel the collection of their data is simply “the price you pay” to use these everyday sites.
However, many respondents became much more uncomfortable with the nature of data collection as they became more familiar with it, calling into question the legitimacy of the current model for targeted advertising.
A separate Which? survey of 2,000 people found that only one in eight (12%) respondents said they trust social networks, while more than half (55%) said they did not.
A lack of trust in the online platforms most of us use every day is compounded by a scarcity of viable alternatives due to a dearth of competition in the tech sector. Which? believes improving transparency and consumer control over data would help to address this lack of trust.
Giving consumers greater control over their data would also help to address competition problems as the collection of excessive consumer data gives the biggest platforms an unfair advantage over other tech companies. The more consumers use large search engines such as Google, the more data it receives to help improve its search results.
Which? believes it is imperative that the government follows through with its intention to legislate for a new pro-competition regime for digital markets and that the DMU is empowered to introduce remedies that promote competition and reduce consumer harm, including giving consumers greater control over their personal data.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Which? has repeatedly raised the issue of consumers not feeling in control over how their data is collected and used by online platforms.
“The introduction of greater choice and control for individual users would not only empower consumers, but would also stimulate competition in digital markets to ensure challenger businesses can compete viably with tech giants.
“The new Digital Markets Unit must be empowered by the government to introduce remedies that promote competition and reduce consumer harm.”
Notes to editors:
 Which?, working with Accent and PJM Economics, surveyed 4,014 users of Google and Facebook online from 19 May to 1 June 2021. The survey used a stated preference valuation methodology that asked respondents to make hypothetical choices over whether they would prefer to be shown targeted or generic adverts, and in the latter case their personal data would not be collected for the purpose of advertising. Half of the respondents were given a choice in which they had to pay a fee not to receive targeted adverts, while the other other half were offered a reward to receive them. The 95% confidence intervals for the estimate of the aggregate value are £0.99bn – £1.28bn in the fee scenario and £3.41bn – £5.01bn in the reward scenario.
 The Competition and Markets Authority recommended that platforms designated with Strategic Market Status should introduce a ‘Choice Requirement Remedy’ in its market study on online platforms and digital advertising in 2020. This remedy would require platforms to give consumers a clear choice not to share their data for personalised advertising, handing them more control over how their data is used and collected.
 Trust in social media taken from the Which? Consumer Insight Tracker May 2021, an online poll weighted to be nationally representative, carried out by Yonder with 2,091 respondents. Question text; How much do you trust or not trust the following companies to treat you fairly?
 The full research report estimating the value of a choice requirement remedy can be found at: https://www.which.co.uk/choiceremedy
The case for giving consumers more control over the collection and use of their personal data for targeted advertising is set out in Which?’s report Consumer data, targeted advertising and user choice, which can found at https://www.which.co.uk/targetedconsumers
Rights of reply
A spokesperson for Facebook said: “We have always been transparent about how we never use sensitive personal data for ad targeting. We offer a range of ways for people to control their ads experience through industry leading tools such as Off-Facebook Activity that gives people more control over the information shared by other apps and websites. We aim to strike a balance between allowing businesses and organisations to show ads that are genuinely of interest and value to people, while also making sure our global community feels comfortable.”
A spokesperson for Google said: “People want a web that can keep their information safe and private while also remaining thriving, pluralistic, and open. We are building tools and technologies to make this possible. Relevant ads are much more likely to show consumers products and offers they actually want, and to help independent publishers and creators of all sizes to fund themselves. That’s why we are advancing the field of privacy-preserving technology in support of a future in which people can access ad-supported content with confidence that their privacy and choices are respected.”
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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