Fear and Loathing on the Internet

Cross-posted from the Public Affairs Council Blog.

Originally posted April 11, 2014

The Internet promotes freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean people think it’s wise to speak freely online.

The pushback against government spying on the Internet is gaining steam, says a new GlobeScan poll of 17,000 people in 17 countries. Because concern about surveillance has largely been a Western phenomenon, the survey produced surprising and varied opinions about global trust. These views are likely to drive policy discussions about personal privacy in the digital age.

Only one-third of Americans believe the Internet is a safe place to express one’s opinions, according to the poll, sponsored by the BBC. Roughly the same level of distrust (or worse) can be found in Canada, Mexico and Europe. In France, barely one in five say they feel safe communicating online.

The BBC commissioned the massive study as a way to gauge free expression around the world. Yet the pollsters found perceptions of freedom in all the wrong places. While most Americans are concerned about Internet privacy, 45 percent of Chinese, 57 percent of Indonesians and 71 percent of Nigerians don’t see a danger. In Pakistan — ranked by the Institute for Economics and Peace as one of the 10 most unstable places in the world — more than half say they are perfectly comfortable expressing themselves online. How is that possible?

The internet is a safe place to express my opinions

To be clear, the vast majority of respondents agree that the Internet gives them greater personal freedom. They see the upside of living in an interconnected world. In addition, more than eight out of 10 Americans believe they are still free to discuss issues publicly. What many people are nervous about, apparently, is using technology to express their opinions.

There is a creeping skittishness — particularly in countries where Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. government spying made headlines. Fifty-four percent of Americans believe they are subject to government surveillance and monitoring. Fifty-one percent of Germans feel the same way (perhaps in part because Snowden revealed that the U.S. was tapping Angela Merkel’s phone).

Yet in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has never been considered a champion of civil liberties, only one-third believe the government is keeping a watchful eye on them. And only 23 percent of Chinese think they are subject to surveillance. Really?

Lionel Bellier of GlobeScan told the BBC that varying levels of Internet usage may explain the findings. “Countries with high Internet connectivity feel more exposed to the Snowden era of online surveillance, compared to countries with low levels of Internet-connected homes,” he said. That could be true. If it is, anxiety will only increase as the rest of the world gets networked.

A second survey, conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by security firm ESET, drilled down on surveillance concerns in the U.S. According to the poll, covered in ComputerWorld and elsewhere, most Americans acknowledge that mass surveillance can help prevent terrorism. Yet 80 percent of Americans want Congress to implement new laws curbing the domestic spying powers of the National Security Agency (NSA). Sixty percent say they are less trusting of Internet service providers and other technology companies than they were before Snowden’s revelations.

As a result, the survey finds people are cutting back on their use of the Internet. Almost half have become more cautious about what they say, where they go and what they do online. About 25 percent say these fears have made them less likely to use email.

These attitudes could have huge implications for both government policies and business practices.

Since Snowden reportedly still has thousands of documents he plans to release, the drip-drip of revelations will surely keep the surveillance issue in the spotlight.

Meanwhile, as this train gains speed, the whole Big Data movement is coming down the track in the other direction. Businesses in every sector are discovering the value of monitoring and anticipating customer preferences and behaviors. Yet most people are not aware of how widely analytics are being used by corporate marketing departments.

Every few months, we seem to hear about a major privacy breach, controversies over social media privacy policies or an intrusive phone app. Brick by brick, these cases build a wall of worry.

Omer Tene, a privacy expert and affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, calls this tension between privacy risk and Big Data “the biggest public policy challenge of our time”:

It calls for momentous choices to be made between weighty policy concerns such as medical research, urban planning and efficient use of resources, on the one hand, and individuals’ rights to privacy, fairness, equality and freedom of speech, on the other hand. It requires deciding whether efforts to cure fatal disease or eviscerate terrorism are worth subjecting human individuality to omniscient surveillance and algorithmic decision-making.

Both the public and private sectors would be smart to debate these choices publicly and reach broad consensus on privacy rights. That’s because it’s only a matter of time before fears about the NSA and corporate business practices converge.

When that happens, public outrage will further alarm policymakers, who will feel compelled to act. Hastily written regulations will not only make it difficult for government to do its job; they will affect the business plans and reputations of thousands of companies worldwide.

In the U.S. and Europe, where Internet anxiety is the highest, we could be one major privacy scandal away from this reality.

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