In the United States, defending free-speech rights is a longstanding tradition. It comes naturally to people. That's not always the case in other countries, where government restrictions on the Internet are often accepted as a fact of life.
But with much of the world getting access to the Web for the first time, that may be beginning to change. According to 22,000 in-person interviews conducted by the Pew Research Center, Internet usage and support for net freedom share a close relationship — no matter where you live.
The more of a country's population that's connected to the Web, the more likely it is that they'll support ending government controls. This is truest in Latin American countries like Chile and Argentina, where a majority of people are online. Unsurprisingly, places that are still lacking in connectivity don't seem to care as much.
It seems like an obvious conclusion, one that reinforces the urgency behind Project Loon and other Silicon Valley efforts to spread the Internet to the developing world. It also bodes well for countries such as Colombia that believe in broadband access as an economic tool. But support for Internet openness says nothing about the actual conditions in-country, which is arguably the more important metric. And the reality is somewhat depressing.
Take the Latin American states in the upper right-hand corner of the chart, for instance. Respondents surveyed there were overwhelmingly in favor of a free Internet. Yet of those, only Argentina scored highly enough on Freedom House's annual Internet freedom index to be described as "free." Just three other states in Pew's latest study make the grade: South Africa, Kenya and the Philippines. All the other countries' Internets are either "not free" or only "partly free."
China doesn't make it onto Pew's chart. But there, Internet penetration is as high as 40 percent. By that measure, Pew might predict as many as 70 percent of people to support Internet openness. Yet a 2008 study by the same organization found the exact opposite: 80 percent of Chinese thought the Internet should be controlled — and 85 percent thought it should be Beijing's responsibility.
Even in the United States, the perception of Internet freedom has been marred by what we've learned about the NSA and electronic surveillance. America found itself on Reporters Without Borders' "Enemies of the Internet" index for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, the latest Pew study creates some new questions. What's going on in South Africa, Kenya and the Philippines, all of which have middling rates of support for net freedom and of Web penetration, but a remarkably free and open Internet? Do those examples disprove the idea that broadband access leads to Internet openness? Or are they somehow exceptional? And how do we replicate that model? Should people in those countries do more to safeguard the freedoms they have?
Internet usage may be a factor in determining support for a free and open Internet. But its connection to actual Internet freedom is not so clear.