Private Parts


Conventional wisdom holds that computer geeks–especially online computer geeks–are crypto-libertarians who cherish the spontaneous order and voluntary associations of cyberspace. Findings from a recent poll conducted by Louis Harris Associates for Privacy & American Business, a nonprofit consumer research group, seem to bear out the stereotype. The survey asked questions of 1,009 computer users nationwide and tracked respondents according to Internet and online-service usage. When asked whether "government can generally be trusted to look after our interests," 64 percent disagreed strongly or somewhat. And in response to the statement, "If companies and industry associations adopt good voluntary privacy policies, that would be better than enacting government regulation in this country," 70 percent of all computer users agreed strongly or somewhat.

The same statement, however, garnered 75 percent agreement in 1995. And the response to a related question raises other questions about computer users' assumed libertarian ethos. When asked whether the government should "pass laws" regarding Internet privacy, recommend privacy standards, or let groups develop voluntary privacy standards, 65 percent of computer users who don't use the Internet voted for the first option. And while only 47 percent of Internet users endorsed government regulations, they still preferred them to government-recommended standards (30 percent) or voluntary, group-developed standards (21 percent).

"The explanation for these apparently opposed viewpoints may be that respondents either do not yet see company and industry associations adopting good voluntary privacy policies or that they think the nature of the Internet requires a legal framework that government would have to provide," write the pollsters, who also note that preference for government standards declines with the number of hours per week spent on the Internet.