More people are staying offline due to privacy fears, Oxford research warns

9 Sep 2019

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Fears around privacy have begun to deter people from using the internet, according to an Oxford University study.

With rising concerns about the data collection practices of social media firms, it is understandable that some people may be so deterred by a potential breach of privacy that they eschew having an online presence. But are these people at risk of losing out on the major benefits technology can bring?

Heightened privacy fears are putting more non-internet users off and risk worsening the digital divide, new research has warned.  Though most people choose not to be online because they are not interested, according to Oxford University, a growing number cite anxiety around widely-reported privacy issues, as well as a lack of knowledge on how to use the internet, as the reason for staying offline.

Reasons non-users are not online

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In 2013, when the last survey was carried out, only 1pc of people questioned indicated that privacy worries were the reason they did not use the internet. In 2019, that number had risen to 10pc.

In 2019, 18pc of people questioned said not knowing how to use the internet was the reason they did not use it, while in 2013 it was only 8pc. The number of those who did not use it because they had no interest in it fell from 82pc in 2013 to 69pc in 2019.

The lowest earners in the UK remain the biggest group of non-users, with six in 10 of those on an income of less than £12,500 using the internet, as well as older users whose usage declines sharply after the age of 50, the findings suggest.

‘Missing out on the benefits of the internet’

The Oxford University researchers, who spoke to about 2,000 people, are concerned that people not online are missing out on opportunities that could improve their quality of life.

“The majority of people are having positive experiences of internet use, regularly going online to watch their favourite shows or pay their utility bills,” said Dr Grant Blank, survey research fellow at Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, which conducted the survey. “However, there is a widening perception gap between internet users and non-users, with non-users resolutely avoiding the internet.

“Often these non-users are from low-income groups, where being online could potentially improve their quality of life.

“There’s an interesting paradox here, with internet users being less likely to take action to protect their privacy, while non-users tend to be put off by privacy concerns.

What internet users do online.

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“These concerns could perpetuate the digital divide, with many people missing out on the benefits of the internet, such as access to health information, employment opportunities and reduced prices online.

“There is a real opportunity to engage with non-users to address their concerns and help them understand the opportunities the internet can bring. We hope this survey contributes to the public debate about what further steps can be taken to narrow the digital divide.”

Despite active internet surfers reporting positive outcomes, almost 70pc said they were uncomfortable with targeted advertising and tracking data used by tech giants.

“Helping motivate people who lack the confidence to get online is essential to bridge the digital divide,” said Andy Wales, chief digital impact and sustainability officer at BT, which co-sponsored the study with Google and the UK’s department for digital, culture, media and sport.

— PA Media, with additional reporting by Eva Short