Majority of Australians say online privacy beyond their control

27 November 2017

A survey of 1600 Australians details attitudes to online privacy, surveillance, digital disruption at work, and online freedom of speech.

A woman using a smartphone. Image
Some 78 percent of Australians want to know how social media companies are using their personal data, according to University of Sydney research. Image:

Australians are seriously concerned about their digital privacy, according to University of Sydney research that shows many people worry about government and corporate violations.

The Digital Rights and Governance Project at the University of Sydney surveyed 1600 Australians about their digital rights, the need for governance and the responsibilities of social media platforms.  The findings, published in a report launched today, show 67 percent of Australians take steps to protect their privacy online, but only 38 percent feel in control. 

“Australians’ personal and professional lives are being transformed by digital disruption, while lawmakers, technology elites and corporate boards fail to keep up. Data hoarding and seemingly opaque decision-making has given rise to community concern and an urgent need for our digital rights to be clearly laid out by the government,” said report co-author, Professor Gerard Goggin.

“Our results provide a snapshot of the nation’s attitudes and behaviours in the digital world and show Australians’ clear concerns about how their information is being used and accessed by governments, social media platforms and corporations,” said co-author Professor Ariadne Vromen.

According to the report, almost 80 percent of Australians want to know what information of theirs is being accessed, by whom, and how to report and correct inaccuracies.

“There is a meaningful desire amongst the community to be better informed and empowered about personal data. The recent Uber data breach emerged after our research was complete, but it nonetheless shows digital privacy concerns are often well-founded,” said co-author Professor Kimberlee Weatherall.

What do Australians think about surveillance? 

The report also shows support for state-led surveillance of internet activity is dependent on what it is for. Some 57 percent favour collecting communications data for anti-terrorism purposes. However, the same percentage oppose a broader requirement for internet service providers (ISPs) to store customer metadata.

When it comes to employers viewing social media activity, Australians have differing levels of support for private and public activities. While 36 percent believe it is acceptable for employers to look at their public social media posts, only 20 percent say it is acceptable for them to do so when the posts are tagged as private.

“There is meaningful desire in the community to be better informed and empowered about personal data."
Professor Kimberlee Weatherall, University of Sydney Law School

What do Australians think about online free speech?

The report reveals a further split in opinion, when it comes to digital anonymity and the nuances of freedom of speech, according to co-author Dr Fiona Martin

Dr Martin said half of those surveyed think everyone should have the right to anonymity online, but opinion is divided on whether people should be free ‘to say and do what they want’, with 36 percent agreeing and 30 percent disagreeing with this statement.

While 39 percent of Australians have been affected by mean of abusive remarks online, and 27 percent have had personal information posted without their consent, 20 percent or fewer have been affected by more serious types of attack – such as racist remarks, unwanted sexual communications, and cyber-bullying.

The survey also reveals more than a third of parents (37 percent) have advised their child to reduce their social media use due to the behaviour of others, while almost a quarter (24 percent) have advised their children to delete a social media account due to bullying.

Digital Rights and Governance is an interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Sydney and funded by the Sydney Research Excellence Initiative (SREI) 2020.

Summary of other key findings

  • Some 47 percent of Australians worry about government violating their privacy;
  • A large majority (78 percent) want to know how social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are using their personal data;
  • Some 79 percent say retention of phone call information is a breach of privacy;
  • A majority (58 percent) oppose a metadata retention scheme, but support lifts when this policy is framed as a law enforcement, security, or terrorism measure;
  • Australians are divided about freedom of speech online. Some 37 percent agree with being ‘free to say and do what I want online’, but 30 percent disagree, while the remaining 33 percent hold reservations about absolute freedom of speech online.

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