India’s first-ever and largest behavioural research experiment on end-user data privacy practices completed

Behavioural science specialists, the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC), Ashoka University and Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, with support from Omidyar Network India, an investment firm focussed on social impact, have completed a first-of-its-kind behavioural experiment in India and Kenya. They assessed whether end-users can be nudged to be more privacy-conscious, and whether better privacy practices provide a business advantage.

The experiments looked at the privacy paradox that exists among users – users want to safeguard their privacy, but don’t follow through in action. Busara and CSBC consider it essential to understand users’ behaviour in these circumstances in order to improve data privacy practices in the Global South.

The experiment had various nudges designed to influence users’ privacy related behaviours, such as presenting the privacy policy in a more visual manner, making users stay on the policy page for a fixed period of time, and using star ratings to indicate the quality of the privacy practices by the business.

Speaking about the initiative, Pooja Haldea, Senior Advisor at the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change, Ashoka University, said, “The experiments we conducted have yielded promising results in identifying practices that can help improve the consent process. Users are not always capable of making the right choices for themselves and businesses are not always incentivised to put privacy first. Meaningful change in the data privacy environment can be brought about by better regulation and integrating privacy features into the platform design itself. Working with service providers and policymakers to further fine tune these nudges and testing them in the real market setting would help advance our work to improve the privacy environment in the country”

Ridhi Podar, Engagement Director at Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, said, “With support from Omidyar Network India, we undertook this study in tandem with CSBC, to determine the impact of different behavioural nudges on users’ online behaviour. A key lesson learned is that there is a clear advantage for businesses to adopt and signal good privacy practices – we found users sharing more data when service providers come across as more trustworthy. Our hope is to further the conversation about making consent more informed: integrating privacy and consent with product design by making it an essential part of the user experience.”

Shilpa Kumar, Partner at Omidyar Network India, said “One of ON India’s goals is to enable every Indian to feel empowered and safe when she is online, reap benefits from technology, and face minimal harm from its risks. Towards this goal, we support efforts that build an appreciation of the benefits and risks of the data and attention economy, as well as enable individuals to take steps to protect themselves from harms online. In line with evolving global regulations, the IntAct initiative suggests that the onus should be on the service provider to keep the individual safe from harms, rather than the other way around. This is in line with other areas of consumer interest like food safety and electronic appliances. It also demonstrates that privacy has a business case – consumers share more data if they trust the service provider will use it responsibly.”

Looking at future possibilities, live testing and further fine tuning of promising nudges like the cool down, default settings, and star ratings, could strengthen the scope for large-scale adoption.

Behaviour science research in data privacy has so far been confined to major western nations. However, the Global South poses a different set of challenges and realities, which requires independent research and experimentation in these markets that account for the socio-cultural and economic aspects of South Asia and North-East Africa. It is the first time that an experiment of this kind was conducted in the region. The findings of the behavioural experiments can contribute to more internet users making active, informed choices about their data, eventually leading to a greater trust between individuals, businesses and governments, in our increasingly digital society.