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Mistrust Changes Internet User Behavior


A new survey indicates that American Internet users are becoming more concerned about whether they can trust online material. Declining trust can be seen in the wide variety of ways that people use the Internet.

From the obvious -- like spam offering dubious medicine or get-rich-quick schemes -- to the confusing or non-existent privacy policies of many websites -- the Internet has become scary enough to have affected Internet use.

"Fear is changing what users are doing online," says Evans Witt, who heads Princeton Survey Research, which conducted the study. "Users are very worried about the possibility that their personal information that is available online is going to be ripped off, and that criminals will take that information and loot their bank accounts, charge things on their credit cards, and generally ruin their financial lives," he points out. "Nearly 9 out of 10 users, 86%, have changed their online behavior because of fear of identity theft."

Almost one-third of those surveyed say they have reduced their overall use of the Internet. One-quarter of them have stopped buying things online. That's bad news for businesses that see e-commerce as an important part of their business model.

Banks won't be happy to learn that less than two-thirds of the surveyed Internet users say they trust banking websites. But of those who actually do online banking, more than 9 out of 10 trust the website where, for example, they pay bills.

Maybe you go to our website, voanews.com, to catch up on the latest headlines. Traditional news and information websites did well in this survey of trust, with more than two-thirds saying they believe what they see on their favorite news website. Many of those sites are aligned with traditional media -- newspapers, radio or TV. The percentage of adults saying they get most of their news from the Internet is only 11%... but that number has doubled in just the past three years.

But bloggers won't be too happy with this report. Blogs are personal, online diaries that range from silly to casual to real journalism. Serious bloggers want to be taken seriously, but Evans Witt says blogs seem to face a credibility gap with most web surfers. "Only 16% say they trust what they read there," he says. "Blogs are a popular phenomenon. They're an important phenomenon. But at the moment they're not getting the kind of trust that the 'dreaded mainstream media' is getting from users today."

Many parents are concerned about what their children are seeing online. That's a particular problem with teenagers, whose computer skills are often far beyond their parents'. A large majority of those surveyed are worried about violent online games, the availability of sexually-explicit material, and adults lurking in kids' chat rooms. Almost 9 out of 10 adults in this survey said they would like to see a ratings system to help identify websites that should be off-limits for children.

About 1500 adult U.S. Internet users were surveyed for the study, which was commissioned by Consumer Reports WebWatch, a unit of the respected watchdog organization, Consumers Union. The full report is online at ConsumerWebWatch.org.

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