Skip to main content
Article

Whom to Protect And How: The Public, the Government, and the Internet Revolution

, , , , , , and

The authors are part of a team conducting ongoing polling on American’s attitudes about domestic policy issues.

The United States is now in the second stage of a major technological transformation. What began in the 1980s as the Computer Revolution has extended its reach and become the Computer and Internet Revolution. The second stage of the revolution is not only transforming American life, but also leading to calls for federal government protection from perceived threats presented by specific Internet content. Because of First Amendment concerns and the difficulty of regulating this international technology, the government will find it hard to provide the kind of oversight the public wants.

During the first stage of the Computer and Internet Revolution, computer use grew rapidly. Between 1985 and 1999, the share of Americans who used a computer at work or at home more than doubled, from 30 percent to 70 percent. The increase in home computer ownership was even more striking, quadrupling from 15 percent in 1985 to 60 percent by century’s end (table 1).


Table 1. Share of the Public with Access to Computers at Home and at Work, 1985-99
PERCENT 1985 1990 1995 1997 1999
(a) (b)
Computer at work 25 32 39 38 42 44
Computer at home 15 22 36 42 54 60
Computer at neither 70 58 46 43 35 30
Source: NSF, 1985-1999 (a); NPR-Kaiser-Kennedy School, 1999 (b)

The Internet stage of the revolution started in the mid-1990s. Only five years ago, fewer than one in five Americans (18 percent) had ever used the Internet. As the new century begins, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) have used the Internet some time in their lives. In 1995 only 14 percent of Americans said they went online to access the Internet or to send or receive e-mail. By 1997 that share had more than doubled, to 36 percent, and today more than half (54 percent) go online. Virtually all Americans younger than 60 say they have used a computer (92 percent), and most have used the Internet (75 percent) or sent an e-mail message (67 percent).

The rapid spread of the new technology is not without precedent. Television ownership in the United States exploded from 6 percent in 1949 to 52 percent in 1953 to 83 percent by 1956. Still, the increase in computer use and, in the second wave, Internet use is remarkable.

Although much is made of the Internet’s almost limitless capabilities, at this point people are most likely to use it to get information. Americans use the Internet at home to learn about entertainment, sports, and hobbies (38 percent), current events (37 percent), travel (33 percent), and health (28 percent). Fewer use the Internet to shop (24 percent), pay bills (9 percent), and make investments (9 percent).

A Beneficent Revolution

America’s Internet Revolution is taking place among people already disposed to believe strongly in the benefits of new technology. When asked to rate on a scale of 0 to 100 their interest in 11 issues, Americans ranked new medical discoveries highest (an average of 82), followed in fourth and fifth places by new scientific discoveries (67) and new inventions and technologies (65).

Large majorities of Americans believe that science and technology make lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable (90 percent) and that science and technology will provide more opportunities for the next generation (84 percent). Three-fourths of Americans (74 percent) believe that the benefits of scientific research have outweighed the disadvantages.

The experiences of the past two decades have left most Americans feeling quite positive about the general impact of computers on national life and receptive to the possibilities of the Internet. Asked to choose, from a list of eight options, the two most significant technological developments of the 20th century, Americans put the computer (named by 62 percent) at the top of the list by a large margin over the automobile (34 percent), television (21 percent), and the airplane (16 percent). The landslide vote for the computer may be due in part to its novelty, but Americans clearly regard the computer as a major technological discovery.

Most Americans see the computer’s impact on society as mainly positive. Just over half believe that the computer has given people more control over their lives (17 percent believe it has diminished their control). More than eight out of ten see computers as making life better for Americans (9 percent think computers are making life worse). Sixty-eight percent believe the Internet is making life better (14 percent believe it is making life worse). Americans are more evenly divided in their views on the impact of television: 46 percent believe that TV is making life better, 34 percent think it is making life worse.

Most Americans also view the computer industry positively. More than three out of four (78 percent) think computer software companies serve consumers well, while only 7 percent think their service is poor. Only banks (73 percent) and hospitals (72 percent) have comparably positive ratings, but both have higher negatives (24 percent each). Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans believe that the Internet industry is doing a good job serving its consumers; again, only 7 percent think it is doing a bad job.

Despite some early fears, most Americans do not think the use of computers in the workplace displaces workers or depresses wages. A plurality (43 percent) think the growing use of computers will create more jobs; 32 percent think it will mean fewer jobs; about a quarter think it will not make much difference. Americans are evenly divided, at 39 percent each, on whether the use of computers will raise wages or not have much effect; but only 19 percent believe it will lower wages.

In two areas—the amount of free time and time spent with family and friends—Americans do not believe computers have improved life. Only one-fourth (24 percent) of the public believes that computers have given people more free time. Nearly half think computers have actually reduced free time. And more than half (58 percent) say computers have led people to spend less time with families and friends.

What Role for Government?

The first wave of the Computer and Internet Revolution led many Americans to see a role for government in narrowing a “digital divide” in American society, a problem that continues to concern the public today. Nearly half (45 percent) believe that access to computers widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots, while only 11 percent believe that it narrows the gap; 39 percent think it has not made much difference. A majority of Americans (57 percent) believe the government should help low-income people get access to computers and the Internet, and 78 percent say the government should help low-income children.

The Internet Revolution is leading to a broader range of public concerns, accompanied by calls for more government involvement in specific areas (table 2). Eighty-five percent of Americans cite as a major problem the possibility of dangerous strangers making contact with children; 84 percent, the availability of pornography to children; and 73 percent, the availability of information about how to build bombs and other weapons.


Table 2. What the Public Believes the Government Should Do about Key Issues Involving the Internet
PERCENT ISSUE IS A PROBLEM
GOVERNMENT SHOULD DO SOMETHING GOVERNMENT SHOULD NOT BE INVOLVED ISSUE IS NOT A PROBLEM DON’T KNOW
Dangerous strangers making contact with kids 79 15 3 1
The availability of pornography to kids 75 20 4 1
The availability of information about how to build bombs and other weapons 75 15 8 1
False advertising 62 20 12 4
Pornography and adult entertainment 61 26 10 3
The ability to purchase guns 61 14 18 5
Loss of privacy 54 29 14 2
Hate speech, information that attacks people based on their race, religion, or ethnicity 53 27 15 5
Violent games 51 31 15 3
Source: NPR-Kaiser-Kennedy School, 1999

In addition, more than half (56 percent) of Americans regard the loss of privacy as a major problem with computers or the Internet. Although few (4 percent) have ever had an unauthorized person gain access to their financial records or personal information over the Internet, privacy concerns are increasing demands for regulation. More than half (59 percent) of Americans worry that an unauthorized person might gain such access, including 21 percent who say they are very worried. More than three-fourths (81 percent) of people who ever go online say they are concerned about threats to their personal privacy when using the Internet, including 42 percent who say they are very concerned.

What do these trends indicate about a possible new role for government in regulating the Internet? On the one hand, the coming years will witness an upsurge in use of the Internet for a wide variety of purposes, and the public is unlikely to want across-the-board government regulation of the Internet. On the other, most Americans are likely to support legislation to address their specific concerns about the content of the Internet.

Many people are wary of having the government regulate what can be put on the Internet, but they are more willing to accept regulation when it comes to specific threatening content. At least at this point, only about a third of Americans see the need for more government regulation of the Internet industry or the general content of the Internet. But when specific content seen as threatening, such as pornography and bomb-making information, is mentioned, 60 percent favor government restrictions, even if they would impinge on freedom of speech. More than half (57 percent) say that “the federal government needs to regulate what is on the Internet more than television and newspapers because the Internet can be used to gain easier access to dangerous information.”

Three-quarters of Americans say the government should “do something” about the possibility of dangerous strangers making contact with children and about the availability both of pornography to children and of information on how to build explosives (see table 2). A majority also says the government should do something about false advertising (62 percent), the availability of guns (61 percent), pornography (61 percent), the loss of privacy (54 percent), and hate speech (53 percent).

More Americans are worried about specific threats like pornography and bomb-making information on the Internet than about First Amendment issues involved in regulating these threats. When asked which worried them more, 53 percent said they were more concerned that government would not get involved enough in regulating pornography and bomb-making information on the Internet. Only 26 percent were more concerned that government would get too involved in censorship of the Internet.

Public concerns about specific threats on the Internet are not likely to dissipate as more people go online. While Internet users are less likely than nonusers to believe that the content of the Internet needs more regulation than TV or newspaper content, about half of Internet users (as against 65 percent of nonusers) favor this additional regulation in general. In addition, a majority of Internet users believe the government should do something about most of the same specific threats mentioned by nonusers.

The next decade will see an explosion of growth and change in the world of the Internet. Like the advent of television half a century ago, the Internet Revolution will lead to fundamental and in most cases positive changes in the way Americans live. The number of Americans who use the Internet for nearly every activity is likely to double or triple.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In the midst of this extraordinary ferment, public pressure will build in favor of more government involvement in regulating specific parts of the Internet’s content. Regulatory efforts will raise a number of First Amendment issues, if not with the public, at least within the judicial system. Given that information on the Internet flows almost seamlessly across national borders, the U.S. government-or any other-will find it extremely difficult to limit access to information the public thinks is dangerous. Policymakers are likely to be caught between growing public pressure to protect against perceived threats to national and personal well-being and the limits of their ability to regulate specific Internet content.

Get daily updates from Brookings