September 5, 2002

A year later: The Internet and September 11

Americans back decisions to remove information from government Web sites that might be helpful to terrorists — but they are sharply divided about whether the government should monitor email

WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 5) – More than two-thirds of Americans (69%) say the government should do everything it can to keep information out of terrorists’ hands, even if that means the public will be deprived of information it needs or wants.

Similar percentages of Americans approve of officials” steps to remove information from government Web sites that could be useful to terrorists. Even people who favor wide disclosure of information online generally support government policies to remove that information if officials argue it could aid terrorists. For instance, 60% of those who believe the government should post information about chemical plants and the chemicals they produce say that material should be removed from the Internet if the government said it could help terrorists.

Though they demonstrate a willingness to cede power to officials over what to disclose online, a plurality of Americans believe that taking government information off the Internet will not make a difference in battling terrorists. In addition, citizens are sharply divided on the question of whether the government should be able to monitor people”s email and online activities. The division is this: 47% of Americans believe the government should not have the right to monitor people”s Internet use and 45% say the government should have that right. A majority of Internet users oppose government monitoring of people”s email and Web activities.

These are among the findings in a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project taken between June 26 and July 26 of 2,501 American adults. The results are published in a report entitled “One Year Later: September 11 and the Internet.” It is a wide-ranging examination of what people feel government disclosure policies should be, how Americans” online behavior has changed since 9/11, and how the Web itself changed as producers responded to the crisis.

“The trauma of 9/11 continues to have a profound effect on what some people do online and on their views about the kind of information that should be available on the Web,” says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project. “They are willing to give up their access to important information if officials argue the public”s right to know is in conflict with the goal of combating terrorists. At the same time, many Americans are wary of anti-terror policies that would result in government monitoring of private citizens” online activities.”

The survey also showed that 19 million Americans (17% of Internet users) rekindled relationships after 9/11 by sending email to family members, friends, former colleagues and others that they had not contacted in years. Fully 83% of those who renewed contact with others have maintained those relationships through the past year. And notable numbers of American Internet users say they are using email more often, gathering news online more often, visiting government Web sites more often, giving more donations via the Internet, and seeking health and mental health information more often because of the 9/11 attacks.

The Pew Internet Project report also contains the first scholarly studies built around analysis of hundreds of Web sites that have been cached in the September 11 Web Archives ( link to archive). In all, close to 30,000 sites were archived between September 11 and December 1 last year, providing the unique opportunity to document what Web producers did in response to 9/11.

The report”s analysis of the Web sphere makes clear that no event in the Web era has so dominated so many Web sites in such a short, intense period of time. In a cross-sectional sample of Web sites produced by organizations and individuals:

  • 63% provided information related to the attacks
  • 36% allowed visitors to provide some form of assistance to victims
  • 26% allowed individuals to seek assistance from others and from relief organizations

    “The scale of the response on the Web to the attacks was unprecedented – and the value of the Web has never been clearer,” maintains Steven Schneider, Co-Director of WebArchivist.org. “Our initial review of the archive gives us powerful examples of how government agency Web sites became clearinghouses for information and relief efforts, how do-it-yourself journalism by amateurs flourished, how religious sites tended to their members, and how the virtual public square was teeming with commentary, expressions of grief, and patriotism.”

    Kirsten Foot, the other Co-Director of WebArchivist.org, notes that for all of the online activity captured in the archive, several noteworthy shortcomings were also in evidence: “No government site we have examined allowed people to advocate for specific policy responses to the attacks and none of the main religious denominational sites contained serious theological reflection on all the painful questions 9/11 raised: Where is God in the midst of evil? How could this happen if God is just?”