News / Science & Technology

Distrust the Internet? You're Not Alone

FILE - An image of Steve Jobs looks over the shoulder of computer workers in Kochi, India
FILE - An image of Steve Jobs looks over the shoulder of computer workers in Kochi, India
A new global public opinion survey suggests that just over half of people polled across the world believe that the Internet is not a safe place to express their individual opinions.

The poll, conducted by the firm GlobeScan for the BBC World Service, spanned 17,000 individuals in 17 nations on every continent; among them Peru, Nigeria, China, and the United States.

The survey contained several results that may seem surprising or even contradictory, pollsters say.

For example, while 52 percent disagreed with the statement "the Internet is a safe place to express my opinions," 67 percent agreed that "the Internet gives me greater freedom."

Among nations where survey respondents were most distrustful of the Internet were Canada and the U.S. (both 65 percent), France (76 percent and South Korea (72 percent) - all nations that have relatively wide and unfiltered Internet access.

"The country distribution where views today are most negative has us conclude that the widely-covered Snowden allegations of online U.S, government surveillance has affected the perceived safety of the Internet," GlobeScan chairman Doug Miller said in an interview with VOA.

GlobeScan has been conducting the survey for the past seven years. It asks for respondent opinions on seven general areas of freedom, including public speech, religious practice, freedom to marry and government surveillance.

In his executive summary, Miller wrote that some of the trends - notably on measure of distrust of the media - are headed in a troubling direction. 

"The finding that majorities of Americans and Germans do not feel free from government surveillance (well ahead of any of the other 17 nationalities) is particularly stark, and again suggests that the Snowden allegations have had a strong influence on the Internet-related findings of the poll," Miller said.

"The fact that some of those same countries express fairly positive views of the Internet contributing to their freedom is not inconsistent in that there are social freedoms (via social networks) and economic freedoms (via online shopping) that the Internet provides people," he said.

One of the more surprising results was that nations like Canada, U.S., France and South Korea rated poorly on the Internet being a safe place to express opinions.

Also surprising was that 76 percent - the highest rate of any nation - of Chinese responders felt they were free from any government surveillance or monitoring.

Notably troubling for Miller was the seven-year slide in overall perceptions of freedoms of the press and media.

"The drop of a third (from 59 to 40 percent) over seven years in the percentage believing they have a free and unbiased national media is indeed cause for concern," he said.

"But the question wording is important here; its not only asking about a free press, as in lack of government interference, it is asking about an unbiased press as well," Miller said.

"Given the increasingly polarized media in many of the countries, it may well be this aspect that today leads people to rate the media poorly," he added.

Overall, Miller said that although people still remain distrustful of the Internet in some measures, it also continues to be seen as a "positive force" for freedom in the 17 nations polled.

But the pollster warns that opinions do change, and the Internet could also become something seen as limiting, rather than expanding freedom.

"It is the Internet's role in fostering and renewing democracy that is perhaps in jeopardy if people continue to believe it is an unsafe place to express their views, either because of government surveillance or cyber bullying by those with other views," Miller said.

"Both media and Internet organizations should be very concerned with the poll's findings," he said.

The entire survey results can be found here.

Doug Bernard

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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Comment Sorting
by: Mark from: Virginia
April 09, 2014 7:54 AM
before the internet, there was the newspaper and magazine. There was television and radio. All those mediums of information are governed by the opinions and ideals of the very few; ie. the editors. With the advent of the internet, focus of those mediums of information transitioned over to the World Wide Web, and are STILL governed by the opinions and ideals of editors. It is nothing more than a new form of medium for those existing organizations.

Adding fuel to the fire is the ability of individuals not involved with magazine, television, radio and newsprint to express their own opinions and any subject, often contradicting each other and the established outlets of information. It's a muddle out there, always has been, always will be. The internet can be a tool or a weapon. I have lived the bulk of my life without it, and while I find it useful at times, I maintain a grain of salt when perusing the contents of information offered on the internet.

And, while it is a wide open fertile area for humanity to express themselves, caution must be maintained that it is not used to deceive and destroy. It is also a field ripe for eavesdropping and surveillance. As the expression used to be said.... Big Brother is Watching You. Do I use the internet, yes. Do I find it useful, yes. Do I trust it, no.

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