The million-dollar question: opt in, or opt out?

The million-dollar question: opt in, or opt out?

Summary: New research suggests that default settings matter tremendously, from software to organ donation. How should developers navigate this tricky terrain?

TOPICS: Privacy, Apple, Cloud

How much does it really matter that an option is by default opt-in or opt-out?

More than you could ever imagine.

The New York Times' Steve Lohr had a nice report in this weekend's edition on default choices and how much they sway human behavior. His finding: default options matter tremendously, even for major life choices such as organ donation.

An excerpt:

Defaults, according to economists and psychologists, frame how a person is presented with a choice. But they say there are other forces that make the default path hard to resist. One is natural human inertia, or laziness, that favors making the quick, easy choice instead of exerting the mental energy to make a different one. Another, they say, is that most people perceive a default as an authoritative recommendation.

It's a field of study called decision architecture, and for us technologically-inclined types, it's present in everything from marketing campaigns ("How did I get this e-mail? I never signed up for this!") to the newest cloud computing services. (Think Apple got 20 million users to opt-in to iCloud? Think again.)

But a single yes/no box is one thing and complex privacy rules -- such as those on Facebook -- are another entirely. In a project called "Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out," Carnegie Mellon University researchers are studying why users have (and with how much) difficulty in changing these default settings.

The result: the majority of those surveyed found them too complex to manipulate. Worse, most found that the settings were less restrictive than they would have liked.

You could argue both ways here: users have a right to deserve privacy, and the Internet has a right to encourage sharing. (Otherwise, how could it exist?) But there's a big difference between a default and one that's difficult to change. Simply, choice on the Internet is not as cut-and-dried an option as we'd like to think.

Neither is the answer. I can't say for certain how I would balance the interests of the provider with the interests of the user -- after all, it's not a right to use a piece of software, but neither is it a right to fool people into acting against their own interests.

What would you do?

Topics: Privacy, Apple, Cloud

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • The answer to your question is, unfortunately, simple.

    The Victims want 'opt-in' to protect themselves from abuses by the corporate criminals. The Criminals want 'opt-out' because then *you* have to take action over-and-over again to avoid being abused, and they figure that you will eventually tire and submit.

    Considering that the criminals have more money than the victims, and that the SJC ruled that it is OK for corporations to buy politicians with massive payoffs (oops - I mean donations), then it is simple to predict that the criminals will win and 'opt-out' will be the de-facto systems.

    My government, the best money can buy ... and now it's legal to do so too. Thanks SJC


    a rather cynical feeling Jon
    • RE: The million-dollar question: opt in, or opt out?


      It is not just the Supreme Court, it is also 100% of the Obama Administration too. I ahve learned that Obama is nothing but a Bush/Cheney in a podium suit. I voted for him hoping for REAL change, but never again. This administration is also supporting the corporate greed and playing the smoke in the mirror game...
      • RE: The million-dollar question: opt in, or opt out?

        @SpankyFrost So that hopey, changey isn't working out so well ? Imagine that!