Troubling Information Polls Tell of a Troubled Public
Two recent polls present a mixed picture about public access to government information in the post-9/11 environment. When asked about whether specific information should be removed from the web, most people say no. But their views change dramatically if the government argues that the information could help terrorists.
On One Hand
One poll, conducted by the First Amendment Center and the American Journalism Review, found that 9/11 had very little impact on the public’s view that they had too much or too little access to government records. In fact, 48% thought they had too little access in 2001 and felt the same way in the summer of 2002. Interestingly, many who were undecided in 2001 felt that there was just about the right amount of access in 2002, going from 30% in 2001 to 38% in 2002. Only 7% in 2001 thought there was too much access, and that number stayed virtually the same at 8% in 2002.
Even when it comes to the war on terrorism, most people do not feel that they are getting too much information. About 40% of those polled felt they were getting too little information and 38% said it was just about the right amount. Only 16% felt there was too much information about the war on terrorism available.
Yet when it comes to access to personal information, a clear majority, 60%, feel there is too much information being made available. Only 3% feel there is too little information, while 33% feel it is just about the right amount.
The sense that there is too little access to government information was reinforced when they asked whether citizens should have access to a series of local information sources. But the strength of support weakened when the examples dealt with personal information about them. For example, well over 90% felt they should have access to records of health inspections conducted at local restaurants and even names of registered sex offenders. But only 73% agreed they should have access to employment records, including salary and benefits, of local school officials, and they are closely split between those who strongly agree and those who mildly agree. That same pattern exists when it comes to access to local real estate records, which includes the sale price, assessed value and taxes paid on residential homes, where 72% agreed.
On the Other Hand
The second poll, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project at virtually the same time as the poll described above, finds a different trend when it comes to public access to “sensitive” information that might be used by terrorists. Nearly 7 of 10 people (69%) say that government should be given broad discretion to keep information out of the hands of terrorists, even if means limiting public access to the information. Roughly two-thirds of survey respondents feel government (67%) and businesses/utilities (66%) should remove information from web sites that “might potentially” help terrorists, even if the public has a right to such information.
Yet a plurality of respondents (47%) say that they do not believe that withholding or removing information from web sites will make a difference in deterring terrorist; 41% believe it will make a difference; and 12% are uncertain.
Like the First Amendment Center/AJR poll, this poll finds broad support for access to specific information. For example, 80% believe that information about pollution caused by individual factories should be posted to the Internet. 76%, slightly lower than the above poll, believe names of convicted sex offenders who have finished their prison time should be posted on the Internet. And 57% believe that information should be posted to the Internet about how and when hazardous materials are transported through their communities.
The poll found less than a majority support posting the information on the Internet when more specific details are revealed, such as lists of chemical plants and the chemicals they produce (43%). Although the numbers in this poll are far less supportive of posting personal information, the trend is the same as in the first poll – it is the least popular of items for public access. In this poll, only 27% support posting information about property tax records, such as what people paid for their houses.
But all of this is turned on its head if the government says that the information could help terrorists. For example, 60% of those who believed the government should post information about chemical plants and the chemicals they produce agreed that the information should be removed from the Internet if the government said it could help terrorist. Similarly, more than half (54%) of those who supported posting information about pollution from factories and 58% of those who supported knowing about the transportation of hazardous chemicals through their communities felt the same way.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project reinforces other findings that highlight the tension that exists since 9/11 between information as a breach of security and its use to promote community health and safety. When information is framed as promoting community safety – the chemical plant information can help reduce accidents and save lives – public access is strongly supported. When information is framed as aiding terrorists – that chemical plant information is a blueprint for terrorists – public access is not supported. That may be a lasting result of 9/11, the public can have two competing viewpoints at the same time.
In some ways, the First Amendment Center/AJR poll raises this tension when it asked whether the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution goes too far in the rights it guarantees. There has been a large jump in those who strongly agree, going from 16% in 1999 to 41% in 2002. Yet when asked about specific rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, those who believe the right is essential has jumped in every case since 1997, and, in no case, is lower than two-thirds of the public.