Network security matters so much because of peoples’ dependence on technology, but also because of the massive amount of money that has flooded into the Internet. According to companies like Fortinet, computers have spread from computers in private homes to businesses and government agencies, allowing them to surveil almost anyone and share everything with each other. What is more, governments have proven themselves able to use the Internet to spy on people as well. In response to this, governments around the world have been pushing for Internet controls. Some of the best known controls involve software patents, laws that require Internet users to “opt in” to allowing government surveillance, and mandatory data retention.
Some countries have also tried to force Internet users to hand over information, such as emails and web browsing histories. Countries like Germany, France, and the U.K. have all moved toward this in recent years, although some governments, like Canada and Australia, have gone further than others. (Indeed, Australia, which has taken the furthest, ended up restricting telecommunications for terror suspects.)
In most places, Internet users agree with these controls. The global e-commerce site Overstock.com even published an infographic showing which countries have implemented the most Internet controls. In 2011, only 10 countries imposed the most restrictive Internet policies, and that number dropped to seven countries in 2012. In 2014, at the end of last year, it was four. That leaves 13 countries that imposed at least some of the most restrictive policies on Internet users. All in all, out of the 14 countries with the most restrictive Internet policies, all but three impose restrictions on some form of Internet surveillance.
The research we’ve conducted suggests that only six of these countries are on the right track by setting rules for online privacy. Despite all of these restrictions, privacy practices have increased in some of these countries. For example, they are more likely to use mobile devices to browse the Web rather than desktop computers.
Among countries where Internet users trust their privacy practices, there is also very little consensus about what privacy protections should be. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and ICIT on behalf of these nine countries showed that nearly all people agreed that people should have the right to decide what information their friends and colleagues share with them. But three-quarters of those polled agreed that in some circumstances, such as emailing financial information, people should be required to have their friends trust them before sharing that information. Similarly, 80% of Internet users agreed that people should not have to give their passwords to companies if they don’t want to. But a significant minority of Internet users, 54%, disagreed with these principles.
Overall, four out of the nine countries that we surveyed had nearly universal trust in online privacy principles, while only two countries China and the U.K. had less than 90% trust in these principles. Of course, there is a lot more work to do to improve these countries’ privacy protections. For instance, many of the countries we surveyed did not have clear rules on whether government surveillance is allowed, and in China, government officials asked some Internet users to register for government surveillance and they refused to do so. And some of the countries we surveyed did not share their privacy policies with the public. As the international community attempts to raise public awareness of these matters and build a coalition against surveillance, it will be important to see whether privacy protections improve over time.