Tired of trying to protect your data privacy? You’ve got “consent fatigue.”
Dec 7, 2023

Tired of trying to protect your data privacy? You’ve got “consent fatigue.”

Internet users are bombarded by websites’ consent requests before the tracking begins. They’re also perplexed about how their data is used and concerned about the risk. But consumers have options, as Consumer Reports’ Matt Schwartz explains.

If you use the internet, you have undoubtedly been asked to consent to cookies.

Companies tell us their cookies are used to enhance the user experience, but those tiny files that websites send to our devices do a lot. They remember our log-in information and also track things like what we’re reading and buying.

Trying to avoid cookies can feel pointless and exhausting. Data privacy experts have named that phenomenon consent fatigue.  

Laws like the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act aimed to change things. But a recent study from Pew Research Center shows that most Americans are concerned about how their data is being used. They also say they don’t really understand what companies are doing with it.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to Matt Schwartz, policy analyst for Consumer Reports, about how we got here.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Matt Schwartz: In my everyday life, I do often hear a similar sentiment that people are concerned about what companies do with their data and at the same time, they kind of feel like the cat is out of the bag and that companies already know everything about them. And I would say that’s just simply reflecting the status quo, and I think that’s a very valid concern. In most jurisdictions, consumers don’t have any ability to control the data companies collect about them.

Lily Jamali: And what’s striking about this set of survey results from Pew is there has been reform, or at least attempts to do something about protecting our data privacy, the CCPA here in California being just one example. And yet, this is where we are.

Schwartz: I think, in part, it’s because many of these state privacy laws, CCPA being one of them, aren’t perfect. Though I do think there’s been improvements. CCPA has been amended, and I think there are stronger protections in that version. One of those amendments, which many consumers might not know about and maybe that’s part of what’s being reflected in these Pew numbers, is there’s now the ability for consumers to take advantage of the universal opt-out. It’s usually it’s a browser-level extension, and basically it’s a signal that will automatically send to businesses your preference to be opted out of data sales. And so that helps avoid the problem of consent fatigue, which is this feeling that consumers have that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of data-related choices that they need to make in order to protect themselves.

Jamali: Before we spoke, I actually clicked on an article, the headline was “How to avoid consent fatigue,” and right away, I got that box at the bottom of the page asking if I’ll accept the website’s cookies. So of course, I hit yes, please track me all over the internet.

Schwartz: Right. I mean, part of the problem there is that often, the choice that’s being presented to you is an illusory one. You can either accept the privacy policy and terms of use in whole, or if you take issue with any of those things that are detailed in the privacy policy, which you probably didn’t read because it’s extremely long, you can say no, but then you don’t get to access the service or product that you’re requesting. So that’s not really a true choice. And it’s also a choice that relies on consumers having to parse extremely ambiguous, long privacy policies, which might not even make clear what they’re doing with the data, even if you read the entire thing. And so, as a result, I think many people feel that they just want to click through and they just want to accept it because they don’t have a choice anyways.

Jamali: So, it’s this idea that agreeing to the terms without reading them is just easier and that’s the sentiment that’s quite common among most of us, not just me?

Schwartz: Right. And some of these state privacy laws are making improvements to that. They are giving you some more granular rights with regards to your data, and I think one of the more important ones is the right to opt out of the sale of your information. That kind of gets a little bit beyond this all-or-nothing choice because it allows you as a consumer to say, “OK fine, I accept the privacy policy, but I don’t want you to sell my personal information to third parties.”

But a secondary problem with that crops up in that consumers now have to go to each website that they interact with in order to effectuate that opt-out choice, and that is still not really a usable right for consumers. It can still lead to the type of consent fatigue that we’re talking about because we’re talking about thousands of websites that the average consumer interacts with.

Jamali: Yeah, no one’s going to actually do that, right? Which kind of gets back to another topic in this Pew survey, which found that most Americans don’t feel like they have control over their personal data. The companies that collect all of this data would argue that we do have control because we choose when we opt in to their privacy policies. Do they have a point there?

Schwartz: Not really. That’s what we’re talking about with the all-or-nothing decisions. Most people feel unable to really understand what’s going on beneath the hood of these companies and to understand what type of data sharing is occurring. So that’s part of what we’re trying to get at with these universal controls so you can at least say, “I’m going to set my preference once to opt out of sales,” and it’s going to automatically send this to the company.

Jamali: Consumer Reports recently launched an app called Permission Slip, and the pitch here seems to be that Consumer Reports will reach out to companies for people and tell them to stop selling your personal online data. Is that the main idea?

Schwartz: It is. So, this takes advantage of a slightly different concept in state privacy laws. It’s called authorized agents. An authorized agent is essentially a middleman that the consumer designates to handle their privacy requests for them. And so Permission Slip acts as an authorized agent under California law and helps consumers effectuate their consumer rights requests, especially the right to opt out of sales. So instead of a person navigating to each individual business that they’ve interacted with, which again is the number that’s likely in the thousands, trying to find that company’s opt-out controls and then filling out all of the necessary verification information, Permission Slip users instead can go into the app and simply tap on each of the businesses in the app that they wish to send a rights request to. And Consumer Reports will automatically process that request and manage the attendant paperwork that that requires.

Jamali: We’ve established that consumers are, by and large, pretty down on how their data might be used. Do you think there is a path back to a place where people do feel like there’s less confusion and more control over their data?

Schwartz: I think so. In the federal framework, we should be shooting for a data minimization law. What that would do is say that companies can’t collect or process information unless it’s necessary to provide the service. So, if I have a flashlight app, for example, that app would be legally prevented from collecting my location data because they don’t need it to provide the service. And that would also help avoid the consent fatigue problem where the flashlight app will just badger you to collect that extraneous information that they might benefit from, but rarely if ever will benefit the user. It also helps prevent data breaches because companies will just have less information to begin with.

More on this

Last year, Consumer Reports published a story titled: “I Said No to Online Cookies. Websites Tracked Me Anyway.” Reporter Thomas Germain ran an experiment that involved visiting a bunch of sites he wouldn’t normally frequent. He chose to opt out of cookies on each site and started a bunch of purchases he never completed, just for good measure.

Months later, he was still getting served ads for everything from thousand-dollar office chairs to women’s probiotic supplements. His conclusion is that those targeted ads sometimes follow us, even when we have opted out.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer