Portrait of Net Users vs General Public

Demographically, computer users are younger, have more education, and higher incomes than the general public. Net users are even younger, more affluent, and better educated than computer users not on the Net.

Net users have been accessing the Net for an average of 2 years. They spend 5.9 hours on the Net per week with the median user accessing the Net 2.5 hours per week. The average online user has been accessing the Net for 2.3 years and spends an average of 5.6 hours online each week with the median user accessing the Net 2.6 hours per week.

Males are more likely to access the Internet than females and spend more time there but, females are as likely as males to use an online service and spend equal time there. In the East, where incidence of Internet use is the highest, the amount of Internet time each week also tends to be higher. While Internet use may be more common among those with more education, those with less education spend more time on the Net.

When asked how important using the Net is to them:

" 36% of Net users say "using the Internet has become quite important to me."

" 57% say the Internet is useful "but I could easily do without it."

" Only 7% say "l can't imagine living without using the Internet regularly"

Computer users as a group, and the Net and online user subgroups, share overall business-privacy concerns at the same high levels as the general public. In 1995, 80% of the total public felt that "Consumers have lost all control over how personal information about them is collected and used by companies." An identical 80% of computer users agreed with this statement in 1997, with 82% of Net users agreeing.

On the other hand, computer users are less fearful of technology than the general public. Where 63% of the general public agreed in 1995 that "technology is almost out of control," only 55% of 1997 computer users and 36% of Net users shared that view.

Computer and Net users are less distrustful of institutions (measured by the Harris-Westin Distrust Index) than the general public. Where the general public registered 71% in High and Medium distrust in 1995, only 60% of computer users in 1997 registered such distrust, with Net users at 56%.

In another important overall comparison, computer users and the general public share a general preference for voluntary over regulatory policies to protect consumer privacy. If businesses and industry associations adopt good privacy protection policies, 72% of the general public said in 1995 they would prefer that approach; in 1997, 70% of computer users and 72% of Net users agreed with that view of voluntary being preferable to regulatory as a general matter. (However, the public often favors sector-specific legislation, when it feels problems are outpacing voluntary efforts.).

Online Privacy Invasion: Who Are the Victims?
While only a tiny fraction of Online-Service and Net users report that they have personally experienced invasions of their privacy while online, majorities of users express concern about threats to their privacy on the Net.

The survey asked respondents, "Have you ever been a victim of what you felt was an invasion of your privacy when using your Online Service or when using the Internet?" Only 5% of Net users and 7% of Online-Service users say they have personally been the victim of what they thought was an invasion of their privacy while online. Receiving unwanted email advertising and having personal information required or captured at web sites were the intrusions most complained of.

This is a low level of direct invasion when compared to the 25% of the public that reported in 1995 that they have had their privacy invaded in the offline world, and 35% in some particular consumer-information sectors.

Despite this fact, a majority of Internet and Online users express concern over their e-mail being read; getting too much junk e-mail; their visits to web sites potentially being tracked; having to file personal information to visit web sites; and having their discussions in forums and chat room monitored.

The high level of concern when compared to the low level of direct intrusions can be explained by several factors:

" There has been a steady stream of alarming stories about privacy and security risks on the Internet in the mass and electronic media.

" There is a privacy "buzz" in the news as well as in chat rooms where 20% of Net users say they have discussed privacy issues online.

" There is very low awareness by online service users about the information handling policies of their current service provider.

" There is also very low awareness of existing software tools for exercising individual control over information and communication practices.