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Are surveys to access content bad for your digital privacy?

If consumers leveraged their power and refused the surveys, Google would have no option but to adopt a different business model, one more amenable to consumer privacy concerns.


You’ve been there: You’re scrolling through an article online and, without warning or ransom note, the page becomes captive to an advertisement for 30 agonizing seconds. It’s frustrating and slow, fueling simultaneously a sense of childlike helplessness and parental “I’ve had it” anger.

So, when a window pops up on that same website and offers me a three-question survey in lieu of an advertisement, I click on my answers with all too much enthusiasm. Want to know about my social media inclinations? You got it. Do I like staying active? Not particularly. And heck yeah, I’ll tell you about my preferred summer barbecue condiments.

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These surveys make me feel as though I control my browsing experience, which sharply contrasts those video advertisements and encroaching sponsored images. And that’s exactly the reaction the folks at Google Consumer Surveys were hoping I would have.

In 2012, Google announced Google Consumer Surveys as a new way for website operators to bring in money. These “microsurveys” offered up a win-win-win compromise after years of paywall construction and overbearing online ads. To start, market researchers—mostly entrepreneurs, ad agencies, and marketing firms—brainstorm what they’d like to know from the consumer and draft one to 10 multiple-choice, preference-rating, image-selection, or open-ended response questions. Next, surveyors select the respondent group they want to reach. Researchers pay 10 cents per response per question for surveys that reach the general internet population; for a targeted population—the survey collects answers from only a specific gender or age, for example—they pay 50 cents per response per question. Surveyors then outline the number of responses they want and how many times they want the survey to run (once, weekly, monthly, etc.). They pay their tab, wait for Google’s approval, and sit back while the results come in.

So the researchers, obviously, benefit from the new information about consumers. For readers, the surveys involve answering the few questions and winning an all-inclusive access pass to an article, app, or select images you didn’t have to pay to view. That’s better than a page cluttered up with ads or, gulp, a paywall. And for content providers, the surveys mostly act as a webpage accessory that rakes in revenue. Google pays publishers five cents per answered survey, and the providers get to pick which content is linked to the surveys.

But when a consumer answers the survey, Google doesn’t just provide the market researchers with the outlined answers to the questions. It also gives away a slew of other personal data you might not have known they were collecting.

I wanted to see just how this data was offered up to market researchers, so I created a survey of my own. I posed the single-answer question—“Which of the following is most important to you when shopping online?”—with privacy, website design, anonymity, and security as my multiple-choice options. I spent $10 to hear from 100 respondents, who took all of about 24 hours to reach. And I learned a few things from my guinea-pig readers:

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I learned that online security is important to everyone, but becomes increasingly so as users’ locations moved from urban to rural areas. I learned the inferred salaries of my respondents. And I learned that people above the age of 65 value privacy more than any other age bracket.

When presented with a Google Consumer Survey, respondents can follow a link in the corner of the survey in case they were wondering:

Anita Allen, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on privacy law, told me that she thinks Google Consumer Surveys’ data policy was phrased in a vague enough way that allowed the company to have it both ways: The policy reassures consumers of their privacy while promising researchers access to granular, meaningful information.

According to Google’s privacy policies, it has access to things like what sites consumers browsed previously, recent purchases they’ve made, predicted demographics, inferred parental status, inferred income, urban density, and the region of the country you answered the survey from by collecting information through your computer’s IP address, census data, pixel tags, and caches in the Google browser. The report does not, however, provide researchers with personally identifiable information, such as the respondents’ email addresses, names, or contact information.

Google says its goal is to be clear about the information it collects. But how is the average person supposed to know what is actually being shared with complete strangers?

Fred H. Cate, law professor at the University of Indiana, says it’s on Google to be more direct with consumers. He believes the company, at a minimum, should be clear and accurate so consumers know what personal information it’s offering up. “They may make it wisely or unwisely, but the point is they need enough information to make an informed choice.”

Currently, consumers who are concerned with their data privacy have several options for handling the surveys. You could lie on all these surveys and enter misleading information. And that’ll help muddy the data-collection waters a bit—a practice privacy advocates call obfuscation.

You should also do a privacy checkup on your Google “About Me” page. Google lets you control what information it saves, like web and app activity and location history. It should be obvious, but all those data-collection settings are automatically switched on until users manually go in and change them.

Additionally, you can adjust ad preferences. Google has a running list of things it knows about you and what it thinks advertisers might also like to know. An interest in East Asian Music is one of my personal favorites, apparently.

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The Google ad preference page allows you to modify your privacy by turning off ads based on your interests and opting out of the DoubleClick cookie, an advertising cookie Google uses to collect data.

Allen suggests another way to protect your privacy from Google Consumer Surveys: Skip them for now. “These surveys have almost no deep benefit for the consumer. I just think, in this instant, the benefit is not great enough and it just may be one area where consumers can put their feet down and say ‘I’m just not gonna do this,’ ” she said. “This is an area where we actually do have the power to turn our back on this and just not do these surveys.” She predicts if consumers were to leverage their power and refuse the surveys now, Google would have no option but to adopt a different business model that was more amenable to consumer privacy concerns.

I don’t blame you if you’re privacy-conscious and decide that you want to lie about your personal information, or skip out altogether when a site demands information about you in exchange for the content. But might I still shamelessly opt for one of those surveys over an inescapable video advertisement? Any day.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.