The potential of the Internet as a tool for democracy is astounding, nowhere more so than in its use by U.S. government agencies to educate the public about government affairs and more directly involve them in their own governance.
So far, the onset of the Information Age hasn't done much to boost Americans' confidence in their own self- government. When asked last September, just prior to the terrorist attacks, "How much trust and confidence do you have in the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country?" 17% of Americans chose "a great deal," down from 25% in 1976.
Still, the Internet may be bringing Americans closer to government. According to the 2001 National Technology Readiness Survey conducted by the University of Maryland and Rockbridge Associates Inc., 55% of adults with Internet access visited federal, state or local government Web sites in 2001. One-third of respondents (33%)visited federal Web sites.
Part of the volume can be attributed to the frequency with which Americans are seeking information online. A December Gallup poll* found only 42% of respondents saying they didn't spend any time in a normal day using the Internet -- the average amount of time spent online in a normal day was just under an hour. More than 40% of adults spend an hour or more a day online. An additional 18% use the Internet less than an hour a day. Gallup Poll data from February 2000** indicated that the most common use for the Internet is to find information -- 95% of Americans who had Internet access in the last 30 days said they use it for this purpose -- followed by sending or receiving e-mail, at 89%.
While most Americans are using the Internet, many users consider online commerce somewhat risky. Over 80% of Internet users told Gallup in September 2000*** that they were "very" (53%) or "somewhat" concerned (29%) about the privacy of their online information and activities. The National Technology Readiness Survey data suggest, however, that such worries may not be as prevalent for government transactions. According to the study results, adults now feel more comfortable making government transactions, such as paying income taxes, online than trading stocks or paying credit card bills online.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,002 adults, aged 18+, conducted Dec. 6-9, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 596 Internet users, aged 18+, conducted Feb. 20-21, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
***Results are based on telephone interviews with 573 Internet users, aged 18+, conducted Sept. 11-13, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.