NEW YORK, NY—American Public favors new approaches to provide greater online protections and responsiveness.
64% of the public feels government should develop rules to protect Internet users, even if it means some regulation; The public feels industry has a key role to play but 58% indicates it does not want industry self-regulation alone; 70% feels non-profits should have a significant role in making rules for Internet.
At a time of intense debate over key Internet policy issues, ranging from antitrust to privacy regulation, open access and taxation of online commerce, a new body of opinion research sponsored by the Markle Foundation shows that the American public wants a broad range of perspectives and interests involved in decisions about the Internet. Although the public has an overwhelmingly favorable view of the medium, about half of the public also views the Internet as a “source of worry” due to an array of concerns—ranging from on-line pornography and violence, to privacy violations, to unresponsive providers and lack of trustworthiness of online information. But in looking for solutions, they want to go beyond such black and white choices as “government regulation” or “industry self-regulation” to fashion approaches that involve government, industry, technical experts, non-profit organizations and the public itself.
In an innovative and extended research effort that included telephone and on-line polling and focus groups of the general public and Internet experts, the Markle Foundation research found that 63 percent of all Americans, and a remarkable 83 percent of those who go on-line have a positive view of the Internet. The research finds that the public identifies the Internet primarily as a source of information—with 45 percent saying their dominant image of the Internet is that of a “library” as opposed to 17 percent who compare it to a “shopping mall” or “banking and investment office.”
Yet, despite the Internet’s popularity, nearly half of all Americans (45 percent) see the Internet as a source of worry, and 70 percent of the public says, “you have to question most things you read on the Internet.” By a margin of 54-36 percent, the public believes it does not enjoy the same rights and protections on-line than it has in the off-line world, and 59 percent say they don’t know who they would turn to if they had a problem on-line. “The Internet is an increasingly important part of the lives of the American people,” said Zoë Baird, President of the Markle Foundation, at a press conference at the National Press Club. “This research shows that they have an appreciation for the complexities involved in tackling the critical questions that will affect decisions about the Internet. They want the full range of voices and interests to be heard—from the private sector and government, to non-profit organizations and the public itself.”
By a 60-37 percent margin, the public says that “rules for governing the Internet should be mostly developed and enforced by organizations other than the government, such as Internet related companies and non-profit groups.” But by 58-35 percent, the public indicates that it does not want to rely on industry self-regulation alone. Although it is skeptical about government, it still sees a clear place for government—by 64-32 percent (57 to 35 in a retest in June 2001)—”government should develop rules to protect people when they are on the Internet, even if it requires some regulation of the Internet.” This desire for a government role stems, in part, from the public’s wish for “institutions with teeth” which can also include effective private sector solutions, such as the role of credit card companies in protecting the consumer against fraud and defective merchandise.
The public also values the involvement of non-profit organizations. When asked to rate how much of a role ten different groups or institutions should have in making rules for the Internet, the public gives the most favorable ratings to non-profit organizations, with 70 percent feeling positively about non-profits having a significant role. More than half, 55 percent, says the public itself should have a significant voice, even though the public has doubts about its own lack of expertise on these issues.
More generally, the public appears to look to its off-line experiences in setting its expectations and hopes for the Internet. Some of the most frequently mentioned shortcomings of the Internet were the lack of a real person and a real place to go to when the public encounters problems. On the hotly debated issue of Internet taxation, a clear majority (60-34%) believes that on-line purchases should be taxed the same as off-line items.
Although the economic downturn and the failure of many Internet start-ups have dented the share of those who see the Internet as “an engine of economic growth,” which declined slightly from 82 percent in October 2000 to 75 percent in June 2001, there has been no significant change in the share of the public that has a positive view of the Internet, or in the public’s views about accountability on-line.
The Markle Foundation’s research, one of the broadest efforts yet conducted on opinions regarding decisions about the Internet, was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, through a series of national telephone interviews, online surveys, conventional and on-line focus groups, and one-on-one interviews with the public and Internet experts. It was designed to examine multiple aspects of the public’s and the experts’ views on the governance of the Internet, and whether the public believes more needs to be done to provide protections and give them greater control on-line. In turn, it examined whom they trust to make Internet policy.