Do Americans Like Big Facebook Enough to Embrace Big Brother?

Demonstrators hold up a placard in support of former US agent of the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate as they take part in a protest against the U.S. National Security Agency.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Nov. 6, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

Five years ago, Face­book founder Mark Zuck­er­berg pre­dicted that as people be­came more and more de­pend­ent on so­cial me­dia and on­line com­mu­nic­a­tions, they would have few­er and few­er con­cerns about per­son­al pri­vacy.

“I would ex­pect that next year, people will share twice as much in­form­a­tion as they share this year, and next year, they will be shar­ing twice as much as they did the year be­fore,” Zuck­er­berg said in 2008.

A re­cent poll by Gal­lup seems to sug­gest Zuck­er­berg was right, though at least one pri­vacy ex­pert ques­tions the find­ings of the sur­vey con­duc­ted last month, in the midst of grow­ing rev­el­a­tions about the broad reach of Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance.

Gal­lup found that only 35 per­cent of In­ter­net users are “very con­cerned” about the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to mon­it­or their In­ter­net activ­it­ies, com­pared with 47 per­cent in 2000 — a year be­fore the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

The find­ings are sur­pris­ing in the wake of the NSA spy­ing scan­dal, and are par­tic­u­larly not­able giv­en that a sep­ar­ate Gal­lup Poll last month showed that Amer­ic­ans are en­gaged in a love fest with the In­ter­net, with even seni­or cit­izens go­ing on­line in un­pre­ced­en­ted num­bers. The poll found that 87 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans per­son­ally use the In­ter­net — up from 69 per­cent in 2002 — and the num­ber of users age 65 and older jumped 32 per­cent­age points over the past 11 years.

So how much does wired Amer­ica really care about gov­ern­ment snoop­ing?

“There’s more un­der­stand­ing now of how the tech­no­logy works and what you’re get­ting from it,” ar­gued Mi­chael Beck­er­man, pres­id­ent and CEO of the In­ter­net As­so­ci­ation, which rep­res­ents the biggest In­ter­net com­pan­ies. “People are us­ing it in a dif­fer­ent way and are more com­fort­able with it in their lives.”

Of course, that’s true of vir­tu­ally every ser­i­ous tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vance dat­ing back to the wheel. But Beck­er­man said the trend folds in­to a lar­ger story about shift­ing at­ti­tudes on na­tion­al se­cur­ity, point­ing to changes post-9/11 that are now routine but at one time were un­con­scion­able, like full-body searches at the air­port.

Mark Jay­cox, a policy ana­lyst with the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion, which is lob­by­ing for sur­veil­lance re­form, said he thinks the In­ter­net’s per­vas­ive­ness has only in­creased pri­vacy con­cerns.

“People will al­ways want and have a need for private space,” Jay­cox said. “Just be­cause the In­ter­net fa­cil­it­ates pub­lic out­flow of in­form­a­tion doesn’t mean there’s a co­rol­lary that people aren’t wor­ried about their on­line pri­vacy.”

Jay­cox ques­tioned Gal­lup’s polling data, and poin­ted to oth­er polls show­ing most Amer­ic­ans op­pose the NSA’s sweep­ing data-col­lec­tion pro­grams.

But op­pos­ing a spe­cif­ic pro­gram and ac­qui­es­cing to the new real­it­ies of a di­git­al age are not one and the same. In fact, sev­er­al polls in­dic­ate that a “not­able minor­ity” of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is do­ing more to vi­ol­ate their di­git­al pri­vacy than it really is — at least more than what has been di­vulged so far — and are still tol­er­ant in gen­er­al of sur­veil­lance, said Lee Rain­ie, dir­ect­or of the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s In­ter­net Pro­ject. It’s the “I sus­pect the worst, and I’m still OK with it” caucus, he ad­ded.

“Resig­na­tion doesn’t show up very much” in polling data, Rain­ie said. “But there are def­in­itely signs that people are think­ing about tradeoffs.”

The polls by Gal­lup were both con­duc­ted Oct. 3-6 and both have mar­gins of er­ror of plus or minus 4 per­cent­age points. The poll on pri­vacy con­cerns sur­veyed 887 In­ter­net users and the poll on In­ter­net us­age was con­duc­ted among 1,028 adults.

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