Pew poll: Limited knowledge on privacy policies, more on net neutrality

About six in 10 US Internet users were able to correctly define net neutrality in a survey

U.S. Internet users have a limited understanding of what net neutrality means and what protections are contained in company privacy policies, according to the results of a national survey by the Pew Research Center.

Just 61 percent of people responding to Pew's Web IQ survey correctly answered a multiple-choice question and identified net neutrality as equal treatment of digital content by Internet service providers, the research center said Tuesday. You can test your own Web IQ at Pew's website.

And just 44 percent of respondents correctly answered a true or false question on company privacy policies. The minority correctly answered that the presence of a privacy policy does not necessarily mean that the company keeps the information confidential that it collects from users, Pew said.

This recent survey was the first time Pew has asked about net neutrality "so we honestly didn't know what to expect going in on that one," said Aaron Smith, senior researcher at Pew's Internet Project.

Still, with more than six in 10 correctly defining the issue, and about 4 million comments to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission this year, net neutrality has gained some traction among Internet users.

Pew didn't ask about support for net neutrality or whether people think the government should "take an active role" in the issue, Smith said by email.

"It is a fairly technical issue, so the fact that many people are at least aware of the terms of the debate could be interpreted as fairly significant evidence of how much this has penetrated the popular discussion," he added.

On the privacy policy question, "there is still a lot of confusion about privacy policies on websites," said Lee Rainie, Pew's director of Internet, science and technology research.

But the answers weren't that surprising, Smith added, with a near identical response in Pew's recent survey to the same question asked in a 2003 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"In terms of privacy policy awareness, we found it notable how much knowledge on this issue has not changed over the years," Smith said. "Despite all of the data breaches, news stories, and policy discussions that have been happening around this issue over the last decade, Americans are not substantially more informed about this subject than they were a decade ago."

On the other hand, more than eight in 10 Pew survey respondents were able to correctly identify Microsoft founder Bill Gates from a photo and were able to correctly pinpoint Twitter as the Internet service where hashtags are widely used. While about 20 percent of adult Internet users also use Twitter, according to Pew surveys, "knowledge of Twitter conventions is widespread, even among non-Twitter users," Rainie said by email.

More than 70 percent correctly knew that email can be used to send PDFs, and correctly answered that a megabyte is a larger amount of information than a kilobyte.

Just 34 percent of survey respondents were able to correctly link Moore's Law with the number of transistors on a computer chip, and just 23 percent correctly answered "false" when asked if the Internet and the World Wide Web are the same thing.

Pew's survey, of 1,066 adult Internet users in the U.S., was conducted in September.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is

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