A recent Washington Post article had the click-inducing headline Why a staggering number of Americans have stopped using the Internet the way they used to. It’s based on a recent survey by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) that found that 45 per cent of Internet users say that privacy and security concerns have stopped them from doing basic things online, like engaging in e-commerce, posting certain items to social networks, or expressing controversial opinions.
Forty-five per cent is a staggering number. The fact that nearly half of surveyed Internet users in the U.S. are limiting their online activities as a result of privacy and security concerns should give all of us a pause.
But, the NTIA’s findings aren’t without criticism.
The U.S.-based think tank Technology Policy Institute (TPI) posted a critique this week. In No, The NTIA’s Survey Data Do Not Show a “Tipping Point” in Behavior Due to Privacy Concerns, the TPI asserts that “a single year of data is not a trend.” They cite the U.S. Census’ Computer and Internet Use surveys (pdf) in 2011 and 2013, which found that less than one per cent of people who do not use the Internet cite privacy as the reason they are not online. This is roughly consistent with a recent survey of Canadians who remain offline. Ipsos Reid found that only five per cent of Canadians surveyed who do not use the Internet identified privacy and/or security as a reason (interesting side note: nor was cost a significant factor – relevance was the top reason those surveyed identified for not getting online).
Of course, individuals not using the Internet aren’t quite the same as current users curtailing their online activities. For the latter group, there are other data sources to support the NTIA’s findings. In a 2015 global survey, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) – one the co-conveners of the Global Commission on Internet Governance – found that nearly two thirds of global Internet users have some degree of concern about their online privacy. Forty-three per cent avoid certain websites and applications as a result of their concerns. The Privacy Commissioner in New Zealand commissioned released the results of a poll earlier this month that found that 65 percent of New Zealanders are concerned about privacy.
There are likely many other reports from around the world that show a similar sentiment – there is a clear there is an ‘trust gap’ among some Internet users.
Here’s the challenge. At the most fundamental level, the Internet is supported by a series of transactions, be they the exchange of information at the technical level, engaging in e-commerce or in personal communications. Trust in those online transactions is critical for growing the digital economy, and to enhancing the quality of life for all of the citizens of the world.
When that trust is questioned, the system starts to break down.
So what can we do to restore that trust? For me, one of the most interesting lines in the NTIA’s post on their survey was the author’s admission that the “NTIA’s initial analysis only scratches the surface of this important area.” In fact, it raises more questions than it answers. What are the factors that contribute to this apparent diminishing trust? How can consumers make better use of existing security tools? How can we ensure the Internet continues to be a platform for innovation? How can we ensure people trust the security of their online activities while maintaining an open and accessible Internet?
These are difficult questions for which there are no easy answers. There are technical solutions (think CERTS and encryption), policy solutions (ensuring human rights are protected and taking appropriate legislative actions), and personal responsibility (knowing what is safe to share online and ensuring the software on our devices is up-to-date). However, the answers really lie in an approach that is inclusive of all of these solutions.
Trust is a core pillar of the Internet Society’s 2016 Action Plan, and our Collaborative Security brief is a good starting point for a discussion on what we, the global Internet community, can do to enhance users’ trust in the Internet. It identifies an approach that is aimed at fostering confidence in the Internet by putting the rights and responsibilities of people, as well as the preservation of the fundamental properties of the Internet, at the centre of the security discussion. Inherent to this approach is the collective responsibility we all have for the security of the Internet. Given its complexity and transnational nature, multistakholder, cross border collaboration is essential to addressing Internet security.
We need to achieve the right balance between maintaining an open and accessible Internet and having the right security mechanisms in place that enables a secure online environment. It’s not an easy task but one that we have to address for the future success of the Internet.