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Science Alert: Experts Respond

Snapshot of our internet usage – Expert reaction

Posted in Science Alert: Experts Respond on April 14th, 2016.

Online privacy concerns and inequality in internet access are highlighted in the latest New Zealand data from the World Internet Project. 

Fiber-OpticThe latest two yearly survey from the Project, released today, quizzed almost 1400 New Zealanders on their online habits and views. The survey is carried out by AUT researchers at the Institute of Culture, Discourse & Communication.

Ninety one percent of Kiwis use currently use the internet, according the report. Age and income appear to be the biggest barriers to accessing the internet.

For the first time in the eight year history of the survey, researchers asked respondents about their views on privacy. While 45 percent of survey respondents were concerned that companies and corporations were violating their privacy online, 33 percent held the same concerns about government.

A full media release and copy of the report is available here.

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary.

Assoc Prof Gehan Gunasekara, Associate Professor in Commercial Law, University of Auckland, comments:

“At first glance such research findings are useful but individual categories often ignore the finer nuances. Individuals are often unaware what online privacy means, for instance, or are more likely to respond to a specific question such as ‘should your employer be able to access your Facebook profile’. Although it is not surprising most people have not experienced a privacy violation a significant number of those who have report that it had financial implications or affected personal relationships.

“Two aspects that are of interest are that more individuals are concerned about corporations violating their privacy than governments – despite many publicised government privacy lapses such as by the IRD and WINZ – but the overall level of concern is warranted due to the ever increasing amount of personal data being collected by both. Secondly, responses that there is no privacy online do not correlate to the findings that the vast majority indicate they actively protect their privacy online and feel they can control their online privacy (the last question).

“These findings indicate people have mixed feelings about online privacy and do in fact care about it very much which has been confirmed in other New Zealand research.”

Dr Niki Davis, Distinguished Professor of e-Learning, University of Canterbury comments:

“While Internet access is increasing the digital divide has widened in Aotearoa New Zealand, according to the World Internet Report for New Zealand released today. Household income, ethnicity and age are factors; living in a rural area also adds to the challenge. This is the first time that WIPNZ reports impacts for the 14% of our population who have a range of impairments, and a quarter of them have difficulty seeing.

“Children are growing up in this digital world so, while it is good to see that over 95% of parents caution their children against risky behaviour on the Internet, we should be concerned to see that 30% may do little more. Other data on the computers in early childhood also gives cause for concern. Research into children growing up in the digital world is being planned as part of the National Science Challenges.

“As Professor of e-Learning I was interested to see WIPNZ confirm that 5 out of 6 distance learners are among the 71% who use multiple devices accessing the Internet. This leads me to the conclusion that the access to online and distance education is decreasing for those in most need, and these adults and children are likely to be households with a low income. Rural areas should also be a priority for distance education.

“These issues will be hot topics at next week’s bi-annual conference of the Flexible Learning Association of New Zealand (FLANZ) and hopefully among policy makers too.”

Dr Jocelyn Williams, Head of Department, Department of Communication Studies, Unitec Institute of Technology, comments:

“The international two-yearly World Internet (WIP) surveys concentrate on a wide range of trends and patterns of internet usage. The research methodology places a focus on quantitative data – proportions and types of users and what those users like to do online, on what devices, and so on. A key finding for 2015 is the high internet penetration rate in NZ relative to other participating WIP countries, reported as 91 percent in this report. On the face of it, this is cause for NZ to relax on the connectivity front.

“What lies behind these figures however are those who miss out, and the implications of their digital exclusion. The report mentions that “the disadvantage for the minority who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide keeps on climbing “ and addresses digital disadvantage, saying “this group may be increasingly disadvantaged as they are more easily overlooked as a shrinking minority.” However it only looks at what users do, in order to determine by deduction “what kind of burden of exclusion non-users may face”.  The nature of the WIP research is such that this issue can’t be explored.

“We continue to see a definite Digital Divide in New Zealand.  Other data such as in the census give us a different lens on the high penetration rate reported by the WIP. For example, the 2013 census identified 62,000 New Zealand households without Internet access, affecting 200,000 school aged children. While these figures are slowly dropping as a result of targeted interventions (for example, the previous census in 2006 had identified 115,000 households thus affected), they imply unequal opportunities for school children to gain digital literacy.

“This digital inequality is unevenly spread geographically, with greater numbers of households in Auckland affected, and it has a relationship with the income inequality identified in the WIP report, deduced in that case by the fact that as household income rises there is a small but perceptible increase in the average internet usage. Higher income groups also own more devices.

“Education now requires with increasing urgency that all students bring their own devices and have internet connectivity at home. If they don’t have these things they can’t participate. These concentrations and variations have a flow-on effect for children and families without Internet access in terms of their chances in an economy needing less dependency on primary production and tourism, and more on so-called weightless exports.

The Committee for Auckland identifies wide talent gaps especially in IT where skills are needed to assist business to be more productive through high-tech innovation. There’s a big difference between internet access and effective use, or achieving digital literacy that leads directly to employment. While it’s a useful step to trace trends and shifts in such things as preference for devices, or toward the use of multiple devices, the intention of the WIPNZ exercise to “provide information that assists in decision-making and planning around government policy and industry in NZ” (p iii) is met only to the extent that telcos, media corporations and marketers in a commercial context may find data here to refine the way they engage with consumers.

“Importantly, the summary information about the NZ research presented in the International Partner Status Reports in the World Internet Report 2015 (p. 10) recognises that “digital divides have not disappeared. Access, connectivity, ability, cost, and just keeping pace with the many new devices have created new divides among various social groupings, which need to be tracked, understood, and addressed”. This under-recognised issue needs a whole other research response.”

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