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Tuesday, April 03, 2001

Public support for government openness tempered by privacy concerns

Results from new national public opinion survey on freedom of information

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WASHINGTON — Americans strongly support open government and the concept of freedom of information, but they are ambivalent about how to balance openness against privacy concerns, according to a new public-opinion poll released by the First Amendment Center and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).

More than 90% of respondents said access to public records was important to them, and six in 10 said public access to government records was "crucial" to the functioning of good government.

However, when asked about certain issues facing the country today, 61% of respondents said they were "very concerned" about "personal privacy," and more than half (54%) supported strengthening privacy laws even if it meant losing access to some records held by the government.

"At a time when so many government decisions are driven by data, access to public information by a free press and an interested public is more critical than ever," said Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. "We have to make the case that greater access to government information benefits the public and not just the press."

The poll of 1,005 adult Americans was the first to explore the interaction between issues of access, government openness, personal privacy and freedom of information (FOI) laws at the national level. The survey is part of a two-year project by ASNE to develop new strategies for expanding and protecting freedom of information at a time when the Internet, privacy issues and the commercialization of records are changing the landscape for openness.

"The poll and other research gives us a good sense of what we're up against,'' said Anders Gyllenhaal, FOI committee chair. "It tells us exactly where we have people's support and where we have to do more work to build it."

The results show that efforts to ensure government openness must bear in mind a complicated set of public concerns about privacy and the potential for information abuse. Among the key findings:

Most people support principles of access to government records: Almost all Americans (91 percent) agreed with the statement, "Even if I never need to view a public record myself, it is important that I have the right to do so.''

People want more access to government records, hearings and meetings: Nearly half (48%) said Americans have "too little" access to government records and 45% said the same about government meetings and hearings.

There is concern about the sale of information: A majority of respondents (86%) said they were "very concerned" when either the government or private companies sold personal information previously collected about them.

There is a willingness to reduce journalists' access if it protects privacy: More than half (56%) of respondents said they would support new personal privacy laws even if it curtails the ability of journalists to play their watchdog role.

Internet raises privacy concerns: Nearly four in 10 (38%) said they were "more concerned" about personal privacy since they've had access to the Internet, and only 22% said all government records should be made available online. However, 59% said the benefits of using the Internet are greater than the privacy problems that go along with using the Internet.

ASNE's Freedom of Information Committee spent the past year studying how technology, the Internet and changing public opinions are affecting access issues. This coming year, the committee will draw up strategies for strengthening FOI.

About the survey
The survey was conducted for the First Amendment Center by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. All interviews were conducted by telephone Nov. 9-19, 2000, at the University of Connecticut's telephone center. Interviews were conducted with a national scientific sample of 1,005 adults 18 years of age or older. Sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

New report available
The survey coincides with the release of a new report, "Freedom of Information in the Digital Age," produced by the First Amendment Center and the ASNE Freedom of Information Committee. To obtain a copy, contact ASNE at 703-453-1122 or asne@asne.org.

Contact: Sheila Owens, First Amendment Center
212/317-6517, sowens@mediastudies.org

Ellen Ross, First Amendment Center
212/317-6517, eross@mediastudies.org