Web-based surveys have revealed that internet users believe the internet is a place for freedom of expression, with users in countries with stricter government controls on media and press tending to support this idea even more.
Nearly all users surveyed opposed the idea of government monitoring of the internet. Yet the researchers, led by the Oxford Internet Institute, found a 'surprisingly large' proportion of users worldwide (63%) were 'resigned' to thinking that government monitoring went on, but a larger proportion of users in nations of the New Internet World perceived higher levels of government control of the internet than users in countries that were early adopters of the internet.
The surveys were carried out in 2012 before the disclosures of Edward Snowden and his claims about US and other governmental surveillance initiatives.
The researchers compared attitudes of the Old Internet World (dominated by users from North America and Western Europe) with a New Internet World (of users in Asia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, China, Peru, Mexico, South Arabia and Egypt). They surveyed over 11,000 people and found that on the whole, users across all nations surveyed were positive about the opportunities offered by the internet, particularly the opportunities for freedom of expression.
However, the report also highlights their concerns over privacy, surveillance and security and their reluctance to exercise their freedom of expression. A large proportion said they believed they put their privacy at risk when they went on the internet and they have mixed feelings about third parties sharing their personal data.
'We wanted to see whether there would be any variation in attitudes toward the importance of freedom of expression,' said lead author Professor William Dutton. 'We found strong support for the values and attitudes underpinning freedom of expression on the internet. Indeed, in 2012, users in the emerging nations of the New Internet World were more likely to support norms underpinning freedom of expression online than users from nations of the Old Internet World. This might be because some of the countries that recently adopted the internet tend to have stricter government controls on what individuals see in the offline world.'
Overall, 69% said they expressed themselves freely on the internet, but only 50% said the internet was a safe place to express opinions. Seventy-one per cent said they were careful about what they did or said online. The report remarks that levels of trust in the internet may well have fallen since the surveys were carried out following the Snowden revelations.
The report also shows that users in nations that have more recently embraced the internet appeared somewhat less aware of the risks and more trusting in their use of the internet. Moreover, many users around the world did not appear to be taking measures designed to protect their privacy and security online.
Professor Dutton said: 'There is clearly a need for continuing research on attitudes, beliefs and practices in related areas of security, privacy, authenticity and trust in the internet, but also greater efforts to support public awareness campaigns, such as the current focus of work in our Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre at the Oxford Martin School.'
The report, 'The Internet Trust Bubble: Global Values, Beliefs and Practices', is one of a set of reports launched by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on strengthening internet privacy and trust in the security of online personal data.