Are Digital Natives Careless or Cautious With Their Data?

Millennials are the first digital natives, a generation truly shaped by the internet. Those born between 1981 and 1996 (to use a common definition) grew up with the internet at home, at school and at work. Fittingly, the millennial generation was punctuated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which cleared the way for two decades of extraordinary investment in the nation’s broadband infrastructure. But is their take on online privacy different than that of their elders?

It’s important to understand what millennials think of the technology that has so deeply marked their lives. In particular, do they think more privacy protections are needed or do they simply accept some modern practices that would appall earlier generations?

According to a new survey, the answer is clear: Millennials value their online privacy highly, are worried about the security of their personal data and are concerned that companies that hold their personal information aren’t doing enough to protect it. This information comes from the independent research firm CivicScience. The Internet Innovation Alliance, of which I am honorary chair, commissioned the survey, which covered 8,000 U.S. adults, balanced by demography and geography.

The results show a broad consensus. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of adults surveyed are concerned about hackers stealing their personal and financial data, and fully 76 percent do not want their online data and location information used for commercial purposes. For millennials, the findings are similar: Sixty-seven percent are worried about hacking of their personal financial information from online and social media companies, and 3 out of 4 (74 percent) of those ages 18-34 are concerned with how tech and social media companies use their data and location information. Sixty-nine percent of millennials do not want their online data used to make searches, advertising or content more relevant.

Across the American population, 64 percent of those ages 18-34 and 77 percent of people over the age of 55 support a single nationwide data privacy law for the protection of internet users. Only 10 percent in the younger age group disagree. Overall, the survey showed that 72 percent of adults support a national privacy protection law. In today’s fractured political environment, it’s rare to find that type of consensus on any issue.

In short, the assumption (often glibly made by those who have not deeply studied the issue) that millennials are not very concerned about online privacy because they grew up with the internet is clearly false. And from the survey results, a policy implication is clear: Congress should pass a law containing one uniform, comprehensive standard for data privacy, applicable nationwide and encompassing all companies within the internet ecosystem, from the content-providing edge to the last-mile internet service providers.

Congress can reflect the concerns of both millennials and older Americans – two vitally important generations in the national fabric – by enacting federal data privacy legislation that will be clear to consumers. The issue is too big to be handled by any one state and too important to our national economy to ignore.

Some may think it is ironic to trust a poll on privacy – wouldn’t those most concerned about their data privacy refuse to answer a poll at all? Actually, the opposite is true: Privacy is an issue on which millennials, along with other generations, are eager to make their views known, precisely so they may enjoy the online privacy they value so much. Americans of every generation have serious privacy concerns.

Every election cycle, we seem to hear the question, “Will millennials turn out to vote?” On the issue of online privacy, Congress has a golden opportunity to show that it is listening to the concerns of millennials by adopting this year privacy legislation that imposes obligations on every company that collects data online. Doing so would be a positive step in ensuring that the answer to the recurring question is a resounding “YES.”

Rick Boucher was a member of the U.S. House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet; he is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and a partner in the Washington DC office of the law firm Sidley Austin.

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