Online Responsibility: the Public’s Perspective

There are few policy conversations which would not benefit from listening to public opinion more, or giving the public more of a say. It ought to be a given that listening to public opinion is critical on issues directly affecting ordinary people – and indeed where people have strong opinions based on their own daily experiences. On many issues, the public have expertise through their extensive personal experience, even if they don’t necessarily follow Westminster debate on these issues.

However, all too often, policy is made without due consideration for the public and their needs. Mistaking a lack of knowledge about a particular policy area for a lack of relevant experience, politicians and officials can wrongly assume they have nothing to learn from ordinary people. Or, more likely, they focus on hearing from stakeholders who they consider proxies of public opinion or more relevant public voices.

This happens on many issues and it is happening now on the issue of prospective internet regulation. The internet is one of those issues where the public are genuinely expert: most people use the internet daily and many people use it for several hours a day; many people’s jobs are only possible because of the internet; children’s education is increasingly delivered by the internet (and during the pandemic, it was occasionally delivered exclusively on the internet); and so on. And yet, the debate in politics and the media largely ignores public opinion. Consequently, it is a debate which has become out of step with where the bulk of public opinion and experience is – failing to recognise how people engage with the online world in practice. It has become a debate dominated by a small number of extraordinary stories, rather than the everyday experience. 

To inject the public’s voice back into the debate, Public First ran three extensive, nation-wide polls on internet usage, online safety and prospective regulation, as well as a dozen focus groups on the same themes. The polls were written, distributed  and analysed by Public First and the groups were recruited and moderated by Public First; they were commissioned by Google. The research was divided into three audiences: young people between 13 and 21; parents with dependent children at home; and broader public audiences. All too often questions about online safety are asked and answered in a vacuum or without the opportunity to dig a little deeper. Through extensive polling, complemented by a dozen groups, we hope to have avoided that – getting under the skin of people young and old, parents and non-parents alike. 

In this research, we asked people about their daily and weekly internet habits, their experiences online (both good and bad), their relative fears about life online and life in the “real world”, and also about specific pieces of prospective regulation. 

In our research, we found public attitudes – built off their own experiences – to be a long way from the debate currently taking place in the political world. While there were many differences, the biggest differences emerged on the issue of “safety”. While many politicians tend to talk about the internet as if it was a “Wild West” with no rules and danger around every corner, this view was not reflected by young people or their parents. Fewer than 5% of young people said they felt unsafe online, while fewer than 10% of parents thought their children were unsafe. This is not to say people don’t think danger exists, but rather that young people feel they know how to navigate such danger – and their parents agree.

Trust is at the heart of this: 80% of young people feel confident in their ability to recognise and effectively deal with harmful content and their parents agree. This came through particularly strongly in the focus groups: here, while parents often said they had apps that could monitor their children’s behaviour (something which was a major feature of the polling), in reality most parents didn’t make use of these apps (or indeed searches of their children’s devices) and instead trusted their children to just get on with things safely. 

Again, this is not to imply a lack of interest in their children’s welfare; on the contrary, in our focus groups parents told us they worried about their children all the time; it’s just that they hoped and expected their children to make the right decisions and to come to them as parents if they encountered any problems.

The perceived nature of threats online was an interesting aspect of the research. Again, while policy conversations have focused on things like pornography and violence, this hardly came up at all in the focus groups. In fact, these threats were viewed as being of the past; there is a sense that modern, established platforms have effectively screened out the worst of this (these are legitimate concerns, but some way away from the concerns you heard more regularly in the past.) Parents instead worried about their children getting the wrong ideas about people’s supposedly “perfect” lives – with exposure to endless images of cosmetically-enhanced young people enjoying holidays and parties that were a long way from reality.

The more fundamental questions we ran on attitudes to the internet revealed what amounted to huge relief the internet exists – feelings exacerbated certainly by their lives during the pandemic (the polls ran in Autumn 2021, prior to Omicron but when the memory of lockdown loomed large for most people). People said the internet made work and education possible during the pandemic and, crucially, that enabled young people to communicate with friends and family who they would not have otherwise been able to see.

Perhaps more directly relevant to discussions on prospective new regulation, we asked a series of questions about anonymity online. Young people were divided about the merits of a removal of anonymity: roughly a third said they would oppose removing it, while a third said they would support it, and the remaining third were unsure. Today, a majority of young people reported using aliases online at some point – not for nefarious reasons but simply through habit or when looking for sensitive information. While there was greater in-principle support from parents and the public at large, the polls of these groups revealed an important point: that there is greater in-principle support than for practical, specific support. When people were confronted with the reality of choices for how anonymity might actually be removed, support for the change dropped. We’re talking about options like having to present passports, credit cards, birth certificates and so on; people thought these were generally intrusive and majority support could not be secured for these options. 

We found the same on age-gating; in-principle support fell away when people considered how such a policy might be enforced – and also the possibility that young people might be locked out of sites that were essential for homework, for example. During our focus groups, parents generally preferred to trust their own children – and to be trusted by Government and specific platforms to make the right decisions for their children.

All this takes us back to the key point we raised at the start: that the public ought to be systematically consulted about things – like the workings of the internet and how it is regulated – before major decisions are made because they have so much accumulated experience and therefore wisdom. In this research, the most important theme that came out was “trust”. Parents trusted children; parents expected trust from Government. At this point, it isn’t clear whether politicians are listening.

The polling tables can be found below:

Consumer Poll
Parent Poll
Young People Poll