The internet is the defining technology of our age. Connectivity and information are utilities, like electricity or water, that touch and influence every aspect of modern life in ways we can and cannot see.
The fact that it’s happening does not necessarily mean we are happy about it. Internet-connected products and services are almost ubiquitous: often we use them without thinking; frequently we have no choice.
This new research from Doteveryone looks beyond internet usage and explores how the British public thinks and feels about the internet technologies shaping our world and changing our lives. It is based on a nationally representative survey of 2,000 people online and 500 by phone, backed by in-depth conversations in focus groups, which are quoted in this report.
This is the first of two reports on that research. In the second report we will present detailed analysis of the public’s understanding of digital technologies.
This report highlights:
Britain needs new ways to understand and respond to the social consequences of technology. We are not just 65 million people on our own digital journeys, but one society, being changed irrevocably.
This research shows a clear public demand for technology to be more responsible and accountable. Individuals are overwhelmed by the power and potential of the changes new technologies bring. These changes will get faster, rather than slower.
We must respond to them together, as a society, and create new ways to understand the impact of technology, new protections, and new accountability. This response must listen to public concerns, communicate clearly to the public about these changes and put public representation at its heart.
Based on the findings of this first national digital attitudes survey, Doteveryone recommends:
People love the internet—but not at any cost. When asked to make choices between innovation and changes to their communities and public services, people found those trade-offs unacceptable. This research shows the need for:
People are fed up with online products and services which many feel are deliberately designed to obfuscate. 89% of people want clearer terms and conditions; more than half would like to know about the use and security of their data but can’t find this out. Our future digital society cannot operate if no one understands what they have signed up to. Technology companies should collaborate on and adopt:
People are not sure who they should turn to when they have concerns and are sceptical about how committed technology companies are to taking action when things go wrong.
This research shows there is public demand for:
People see the internet as good for them as individuals, but less good for society.
Half (50%) say it has made life a lot better for “people like me” and another 32% say it has made it a little better. Only 6% say it has made it a lot or a little worse.
But only one in ten (12%) see a ‘very positive impact’ and 44% a ‘fairly positive’ impact on society overall. One fifth (20%) see an overall negative impact on society.
Society is not divided into tech-lovers and luddites—people hold these apparently conflicting attitudes simultaneously. And some feel discomfort around their own reliance on technologies.
“I use [Facebook] everyday and much like Google I find it very bittersweet. I often use this to pass the time in my day to day life or on journeys. But I also find information that I just do not want to see, for example hate speech, violence and idiotic opinions.”
Wealthier people see the greatest benefit on their lives — 57% say it’s made life a lot better for them, while only 43% of the poorest say the same.
The things people value most are making daily tasks more convenient (80%), providing opportunities to try new things, meeting new people and learning something new (68%), and using social media to keep in touch with family and friends (52%).
Half (52%) wouldn’t be able to get through all the things they need to do every day if they didn’t use the internet.
But a quarter report feeling under pressure to use the internet for basic daily tasks (24%), or to use social media to keep up with their social circle (26%). Amongst under 25s, 50% feel under pressure to use social media and 35% to use the internet for basic tasks.
“It’s addictive — if I forget my phone or don’t have Wifi, I feel pretty miserable.”
The positives and negatives of the internet are not separate phenomena but flipsides of the same experience.
“If you painted a picture of the street, everyone would be looking down at a phone—I find it weird and sad.”
Helping people to communicate and keep in touch
Making people less likely to speak to each other face to face
Helping shops and businesses sell their products or services
Making local shops and businesses compete against larger companies who are able to offer the same products and services online
Helping children and young people learn
Making it harder to encourage children and young people to play outside and exercise
Helping people to access products and services
Making it easier for criminals to access and scam people online
These responses show the dilemmas of using technologies: how do we balance personal benefit against wider social harms?
The following scenarios describe some situations where these kinds of trade-offs already take place. People were asked to rate how acceptable these are.
If an online retailer began offering free 1-day delivery for lower income families in my community, but this resulted in local shops closing down
If my local Council made cost savings by transferring all their services online and reduced my Council tax as a result, but this meant that some members of the community found it difficult to access these services
If my bank put more investment into protecting their customers from fraud and cyber crime, but this meant that they had to close down my local branch to cover these costs
If a delivery driver is made redundant from full-time employment, and the only work now available is with an online delivery company, with no guaranteed hours
The responses indicate the limits of the public’s appetite for innovation. It seems they do not want digital technologies to create disruption if it occurs at the expense of communities and social structures. Poorer people found these trade-offs especially unacceptable.Hide
The rapid adoption of internet technologies in our lives has been remarkable. Now 91% of the UK population have the basic digital skills to access the internet and these skills are recognised alongside literacy and numeracy as a key part of our education.
Connectivity has improved and technologies have become more intuitive, so it is easy for people to feel confident using the internet. But when it comes to understanding how digital technologies operate—how online products and services use personal information and generate income—there is a worrying gap.
The public has some awareness that the information they actively type into websites is collected. But far fewer appreciate that information about many other online behaviours is gathered in ways they don’t ‘see’.
And there is limited understanding that this information helps generate revenue for internet companies.
“It does make me uncomfortable that somewhere I have this profile. You don’t know what information they have and where it’s stored.”
Without this understanding people are unable to make informed choices about how they use technologies. And without understanding it is likely that distrust of technologies may grow.
Doteveryone will publish detailed analysis of the nation’s digital understanding in a later report, but some key points are highlighted here. Around two-thirds of people understand that the information they actively input online is gathered — for example
But only a third understand some of the other ways information is collected.
“I didn’t realise the extent to which companies were saving data personal to individuals to use it or sell it for their own benefit. And that it is almost accepted as a given that companies can do this.”
A minority inaccurately believe that extremely invasive data collection takes place:
The public’s understanding of how companies use their data is also limited.
The great majority recognise personal information is used to target advertising (70%) and tailor information to an individual’s tastes and preferences (66%). But far fewer realise that their data can be sold to other companies (56%) or may determine the price they are charged for a product or service (21%).
Correspondingly there is a limited understanding of how companies make money from digital products and services.
Around two-thirds (64%) recognise that advertising contributes to how search and social media services are funded. But knowledge of less obvious mechanisms, such as data selling, paid content and endorsements, is significantly lower.
And just under a quarter of people (24%) say they don’t know at all how online services make money.Hide
It’s not surprising people don’t understand how online products and services work—it’s not easy to discover.
People are keen to know what happens to their data, how they can control how much information they share and what protections they have. At the moment they can’t find this out.
Instead, they face an almost incessant demand to agree to terms and conditions, which they can’t make head or tail of. And people feel resigned to it. Most people don’t read or understand them. And many don’t believe that companies would adhere to them in any case.
“They know no one is going to read all those terms and conditions – and so you don’t know what rights and information you’re giving away.”
Terms and conditions have long existed of offline — but were reserved for complex products such as mortgages and insurance. People might sign them a few times a year. Now they must agree to T&Cs for almost every purchase and interaction.
89% say that companies should do more to make terms and conditions understandable and clear.
“It’s not rocket science to know what sorts of things people are going to be uncomfortable about, so they should be telling you exactly those points—what they’re collecting on you.”
Currently more than half sign up without reading them (58%) or without understanding them when they do try to read them (51%).
And 43% say there’s no point reading T&Cs because companies do what they want anyway.
A similar number (47%) also felt they have no choice but to sign up to online services, even where they have concerns.
A smaller number (25%) say they trust technology companies to do the right thing so don’t need to understand T&Cs.
People are particularly keen to understand what happens to their data — 95% say it’s important to know their data is secure, 94% say it’s important to know how their data is used.
And they would like more control over it — 91% say it’s important to be able to choose how much data they share with companies, but half (51%) can’t currently find out that information.
But people feel they have no power to address these issues.
Almost half (46%) say they don’t like companies collecting information about them, but it’s worth it for the quality and convenience of the services.
“It’s very invasive. They have too much power but we all want to use those sites so we tick the box.”
And 43% say it doesn’t matter whether they trust organisations with their data online, as they need to use them in their day-to-day life.
As well as these specific issues, people also place value on broader questions of responsibility — 74% say it’s important to know how a company treats its employees, 71% say it’s important whether a company pays relevant taxes and 76% say it’s important what values a company holds.
In all these areas most people don’t have or don’t know how to access such information.
This appetite for clarity is matched by a need for accountability. People struggle to identify who to turn to when they face a problem or want answers.
“In other industries – if someone rips you off – you go to the Ombudsman. I don’t know if there is an Ombudsman for the internet—but if there is who is it?”
“I don’t think there are any rules. It seems to be whatever suits them [the technology companies].“
When asked who, if anyone, should be responsible for enforcing rules that ensure service providers treat their customers, staff and society fairly, 66% of respondents believe government should play a role.
They also want to see companies responding to these questions, with 61% saying they should share this responsibility. And 60% would like to see the creation of an independent body.
There is a need therefore for government, industry and society to come together and address this gap in accountability.Hide