Survey finds Americans back government removal of online info
By The Associated Press
NEW YORK More than two-thirds of Americans surveyed say it's OK for government agencies to remove public information from the Internet, even though many didn't believe it would make a difference in fighting terrorism, a new study finds.
But Americans were evenly divided on whether governments should be able to monitor e-mail and Web activities, with 47% opposed and 45% in support.
"When it gets close to common, everyday things they do, their guard gets a little higher," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which conducted the telephone-based survey released yesterday.
Since Sept. 11, several federal and state government agencies have removed documents, maps and other resources from the Internet out of concern the materials could aid terrorists.
The stricken items include federal environmental reports on chemical plants and their emergency response plans; mapping software showing communications infrastructure in Pennsylvania; and data on drinking water and natural gas pipelines in the United States.
Many of the removed documents remained available offline in government reading rooms or even online, housed at other, nongovernment sites. Some items have since been restored by the government.
According to the Pew survey, 67% of Americans believe the U.S. government should remove information that might potentially aid terrorists, even if the public has a right to know. Twenty-three percent believe the government should leave the information up, with the remainder not knowing or not answering.
Of those favoring removal, 36% said doing so would have no effect on terrorism. Overall, 47% of Americans felt that way, compared with 41% who thought it would hinder terrorism.
Internet users were more likely to oppose monitoring and to believe that removing information would make no difference.
"It certainly is significant that our society, which has always prided itself on open access of information, is now so scared of what open access to information means," said David Greene, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Project in Oakland, Calif.
Greene said Americans may not believe the information is personally useful.
"People think, 'I'm not going to poison the water supply system, so what do I need to know about the water supply system?"' Greene said. "But if all of a sudden they are part of an effort to restrict development of a watershed and need that data ... all of a sudden they realize it's important."
Meanwhile, the Pew study found that the attacks continued to affect Internet behavior a year later.
Eighty-three percent of Americans who used e-mail to renew contact with family and friends soon after Sept. 11 maintained those relationships throughout the year. Internet users have also obtained news, visited government sites and made donations online more frequently, with a large number citing the attacks as the major reason for change.
The telephone survey of 2,501 adults, including 1,527 Internet users, was conducted June 26 to July 26. The margin of sampling error was 2 percentage points for the full sample, 3 percentage points for questions asked of Internet users only.
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