Global Internet Culture Emerges

Internet users worldwide want privacy, security, trust, and freedom of expression, says a report from the Oxford Internet Institute, graduate business school Insead, and comScore.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

April 28, 2011

4 Min Read

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Do different countries and cultures view the Internet in different ways, and in particular apply different priorities to issues of online security, privacy, freedom of expression, and trust? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer--in countries as diverse as the United States, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa--turns out to be no.

That's the finding of a new report, "The New Internet World: A Global Perspective on Freedom of Expression, Privacy, Trust, and Security Online." The report is based on a survey of 5,400 adult Internet users from 13 different countries, conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute, graduate business school INSEAD, and ComScore.

Interestingly, the report found that "a global Internet culture has emerged as users across countries often share similar viewpoints and habits related to these vital matters pertaining to the Internet." In particular, people value online freedom of expression, privacy, trust, and security in equal measures.

"What's interesting is that in markets you might think of as more closed, like China, people actually want all of these things," said report co-author Soumitra Dutta, a business and technology professor at INSEAD, in a phone interview. In fact, they oftentimes seem to want them more than in more Internet-established countries. Furthermore, in every country surveyed, people said they were unwilling to trade one for another.

This might sound great in theory, but in practice it can be difficult to balance all of these factors. "Combining all of the elements is going to be a challenge--for governments to put in the right privacy framework, for companies to frame the right approach to their online presence, and what the customer wants also, it's not easy to satisfy that," said Dutta. In the short term, he said, what will be needed is flexibility and experimentation to find out how the various dimensions can best "coexist online," he said.

Another interesting finding from the report is that less-established Internet markets--countries such as Brazil, China, and India--tend to be the most enthusiastic Internet users. "They're much more open to sharing information and innovation than more established markets," said Dutta. "They're also more interested in sharing information in return for other types of benefits."

For example, the survey found that 34% of users share personal information regularly for creating websites or bank accounts, gaining free access to a website, finding a job, or saving time at a website on subsequent visits. Meanwhile, 45% of people hardly share such information, and 20% never do. But looking on a country-by-country basis, it turns out that in India, 51% of users will share their information regularly, followed by 46% in China, and 39% in Brazil. On the other hand, in the United States, Spain, and France, only about 29% of users regularly share.

According to the report, information sharing practices in countries such as India, China, and Brazil don't correspond to lower concerns about security or privacy. In fact, users in those countries "have some of the highest levels of concern," while at the same time also more fully embracing the Internet.

Dutta said that researchers aren't sure why that's so. "Emerging markets tend to be much more open in terms of innovation, creative uses of online technologies, and online behaviors. This is something we need to understand a bit better, simply because maybe the population in emerging markets is less saturated--so maybe the people on the Internet there are more advanced users."

Security-wise, the report also identified an interesting correlation between Internet penetration and attitudes. For example, users in emerging markets are very concerned about online security and quite likely to scan their computers for malware, whereas users in more established markets were less concerned and scanned less.

But once Internet penetration exceeded about 70%--for example in the United States--concerns diminished, though scanning levels were on par with emerging markets. According to the report, "this means that, over time, users understand the importance of protecting themselves online but are less afraid of possible online threats."

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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