Why has the Internet started to lose public trust?

Some of the coolest things you discover and the most interesting things you read are through the Internet. Maybe you watched an amazing documentary about wild animals, streamed a live sports event, or just found out the latest news on your favorite celebrity.

On average, people spend around 8 hours online every day. Like many of us, you probably take the Internet for granted. But do you know which websites you should trust and which you shouldn’t? And why is trust important in the online world?

Let’s analyze together:

  • What does trust mean in the online world?
  • What was the Internet like in the beginning?
  • The Internet’s honeymoon period
  • How has trust in the Internet changed and evolved?
  • What happened that made people trust the Internet less?
  • The real-life implications of what we do online check the recent Facebook scandal 
  • How data breaches and cyber-attacks undermined trust in the Internet 
  • What governments want to persuade us that mass surveillance is for  
  • Did social media draw more people to the Internet or alienated them?
  • How can the Internet regain people’s trust? 
  • How you and I can make the Internet a better place 

What does trust mean in the online world?

Trust is hard to define in general so it’s even harder when it comes to the digital world. Just think that you trust your bank to handle your account and savings. You also trust your doctor to provide the right medication for your illness. Thus, you expect the same level of trust from the world wide web.

Although the examples are debatable in terms of trust, that actually happens in real life.

The escape clause

1. You choose a certain bank or a certain doctor according to your own reasoning.

However, you always have the option to choose a different bank or a different doctor if you want to. You can’t do the same thing with the internet.

The trust is direct, without intermediaries or gatekeepers to filter out the truly worst.

2. Your relationship with your bank or health facility is based on an agreement or contract.

You pay your internet provider for the internet service per se but that’s it.

The expectations you set from the Internet are subjective and diverse. Both good things and bad things can happen. The Internet is so centralized today. Just think how sometimes we are not even aware of how many things we do online; from checking the weather to making online transactions, we constantly browse the web. 

Plus, in most cases, when bad things happen, you can’t ask the ISP to take care of it for you. You have to defend yourself because trust is not something you can negotiate in the online world.

Only you can define the way you trust the Internet.

You can be a different person online

Until recent years, people truly felt the internet was a free, open and borderless place. Along with the feeling of freedom, many users realized they don’t have to be honest in the online world.

Obviously, the loopholes allow malicious actors to take advantage of unsuspecting Internet users. And they’re not always who you’d expect.

People can lie, come up with totally different identities and get away with it. No one would come and hold anyone liable for not being completely sincere about something.

What was the Internet like in the beginning?

Initially, the Internet was simply an interconnected network where people worldwide could read and share information. The original purpose of the Internet was to help researchers, so they didn’t have to physically travel to use remote resources. Soon, this service became available for everyone who had access to an internet network.

Take a look at how websites looked back in 1996 or 2004. 

Yahoo search page in 1996:

Radiohead band website from 1997:

Obama for Illinois official page from 2004:

Today, the world wide web is a global business place. It’s the place where we perform our work tasks, it’s where we communicate with our friends and family, where we trade, shop, even where we get entertained. You could say it dominates a big part of our lives.  

The Internet’s honeymoon period

How do you see the Internet world today?

Now, when we can’t really separate the real from fake, can you still see the glass half full? 

Do you still appreciate the great benefits of the internet, such as:

  • Getting valuable information instantly
  • Communicating with your loved ones who are thousand miles away
  • Establishing professional contacts
  • Paying your bills?

If you do, the internet hasn’t lost you for good.

Where else could you type in a few words and see the first ever footage of deep-sea fish mating or read about complex financial analysis?

The Internet may be quirky and even strange at times, but it’s also delightful and surprising!

But just like anything that expands, especially this fast, the Internet is losing some of its shine.

Let’s see how did trust in the internet evolve over time and what happened that made everyone start to question everything they read or see online.

How has trust in the Internet changed and evolved?

Here are some interesting opinions:

In 1995, Clifford Stoll, a US astronomer and author, was a visionary. He pointed out what today seems obvious:

“What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert…A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where–in the holy names of Education and Progress–important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.”

Almost 20 years later, Stoll’s “prophecy” became reality.

In 2017, digital design strategist Louisa Heinrich, founder at Superhuman Limited, wrote:

“I fear trust will be diminished (i.e., we will be certain we are being watched, that our communications and interactions are not secure) but we will use the technology anyway, either because we have no other choice or because it’s just too convenient.”

So, does the data back up these arguments or not? Time to find out!

They say a picture (in this case a graphic) is worth a thousand words. Here is how people’s level of trust in the Internet looks like today:


Did the lower level of trust in the online world reflect in the way people as well as companies use the internet?

According to a recent survey made by World Economic Forum31% of US online users have avoided or stopped using a service because they felt they did not have control over their personal data.

2017 Knight-Gallup survey also revealed that half of U.S. Internet users are worried about companies watching their online behavior, while 38 percent fear they are monitored by the government.

Clearly, things made a wrong turn at some point not too long ago.

What happened that made people trust the Internet less?

If you think about how many data breaches, ransomware attacks, scams and other digital threats have occurred in the last years, it is no wonder people have become apprehensive and skeptical.

What else? Websites track your every move; social media manipulates your thoughts; governments give laws that allow mass internet surveillance.

When all these happen, you can’t be happy about it and say: “That’s ok”.

This was not the initial purpose of the Internet. In fact, one of the creators of the digital world, Tim-Berners Lee who first introduced WWW to the world said: “The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information”.

But on March 12, 2018, with the occasion of the World Wide Web’s 29th birthday, the same Tim Berners-Lee made an official appeal:

How websites and advertisers track your every move

Surely, you know by now that nothing you do on the web is exactly private. Websites track you in many ways and one of the easiest methods is they know your identity when you log in.

Here are just a few examples:

  • The type of cookies Facebook set on its page:

  • How some websites or browsers track your geographical location:

Other methods are website analytics and tracking software used to collect data. Websites can also identify you based on your IP address which reveals your geographical location – not down to street level, but generally your city or area.

This is actually a privacy reminder that we also have on our website.

Check CyberGhost’s privacy reminder on the home page:

Websites can have more trackers, depending on what and how much they want to know about you. Some just want to see where you click, while others are also looking for more details, like where you come from, what device you use, etc.

What websites do with all this information is put all the puzzle pieces together and create a unique image of you. They then sell this information to third parties such as advertisers or even the government (particularly in non-democratic countries). Websites add more space that become valuable, advertisers reach to a bigger and targeted audience. It’s a win-win situation for them, but for you: that is up for you to decide.

Google is the expert in tracking. In 2012, the company changed its privacy policy, making possible and fairly legal to share your data between different Google services (Gmail, Google+, YouTube, Google Maps and more).

The real-life implications of what we do online – check the recent Facebook scandal

In short, the scandal around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is based on an unparalleled mass manipulation of public opinion. A Cambridge University researcher convinced over 250, 000 online users to take part in a survey by installing an app through Facebook. This app was built specifically so it would share users’ personal as well as their friends’ information without knowing.

All collected data was then used to help Donald Trump win the presidential elections as well as other worldwide political combats.

Who else abused the internet’s built-in trust for selfish, evil gain?

How data breaches and cyber-attacks undermined trust in the Internet 

According to breachlevelindex, over 60 major data breaches occurred in 2017. The Equifax case was the most significant in terms of the number of records that were hacked. Although it happened in 2013, the second most shocking revelation of 2017 was made by Yahoo, disclosing the astounding number of 3 billion accounts that were affected.

57 million Uber driver and passenger accounts data have been stolen at the beginning of 2017 and the list goes on.

Recent examples of data breaches include the 150 million accounts from MyFitnessPal app that were compromised, or the exposure of millions of online retail customers of German apparel manufacturer Adidas.  

In a report made by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, over 4.500 data breaches have been made public since 2005, with more than 816 million individual records breached.

Check out some of the biggest data breaches from the last 3 years:

Simon Moores, a futurist who advises cybersecurity company Symantec, said:

“Over the last few years we’ve seen a shift from vandalism and extortion towards mass data theft as the exploit toolkits available to both nation states and organized criminal gangs have become more sophisticated, automated and intelligent.”

2017 met an avalanche in terms of cyber-attacks. Famous examples are the WannaCry ransomware, NotPetya virus, and WPA2- Wi-Fi security protocol vulnerability that affected all Wi-Fi networks worldwide. White hat hackers have found a solution for each attack. But one thing is certain: the more developed the internet has become, the more unsafe it turned out to be.

What governments want to persuade us that mass surveillance is for  

Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government has started to introduce various laws that would allow them to monitor people’s online activities. The U.S. presented these reforms as a solution to fight terrorism. Initially, not many believed this to be a problem. But when Edward Snowden revealed NSA’s secret in 2013, people worldwide not just Americans, started to get worried. No one likes the idea that a national organization collects information of their phone records and emails.

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed NSA’s secret: the fact that they collect information on millions of American’s phone records and emails. Here is one of his statements: “You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive U.S. surveillance capabilities had become. I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening”.

A similar situation is in the UK with the Snooper’s Charter. This legal act allows government agencies to access citizens’ online activities under certain circumstances. France has approved a Big Brother surveillance law in 2015 as well, while today, other countries set up different methods to collect personal data.

However, the most disturbing is the Chinese government’s plan to rate its citizens based on a Big Brother scheme. The government monitors people’s daily activities constantly and according to how “well” they behave, they earn more points on their Social Credit System. The overall score either helps or prevents people from getting a job or a bank loan.

Other notorious examples of revelations are: 

Did social media draw more people to the Internet or alienated them?

Ever since 2011, Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president for user growth at Facebook made the following statement before leaving the company: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

Facebook platform was launched in 2004 and it created a lot of excitement in the beginning.

In just about 4 or 5 years, the social media miracle has started to turn into a curse, at least for some. Facebook has made couples to break up and unfortunately, teenagers went through ugly episodes of cyber bullying. But this is just the fine line.

If you dig deeper, you’ll discover some traumatizing stories: people who post live videos of violent executions, while others use this platform for online extortion.

The number of Facebook users has increased constantly since 2008, from 100 to 212.900 monthly users in 2017.

But early in 2018, it saw a significant drop among U.S. and Canadian people. Statistics show Facebook lost around 1 million users. The platform still has 84 million users left, but the drop is quite significant for two of its largest target countries and it surely signaled a “trust issue”.

Here is just a short recent timeline of the damage Facebook can do:

2013: After the Boston Marathon bombing, people were wrongly accused in criminal investigations after law enforcement officers relied too much on social media when looking for clues and potential suspects.

2016: The moment when Facebook has seen its largest decline in popularity with the fake news scandal from the U.S. election.

2017Wired have discovered that Facebook is also the home of home trafficking.

Jan, 2018: Mark Zuckerberg declared he plans to introduce a special platform for kids under 13 years old, a declaration that raised a lot of controversies.

March, 2018: A whistleblower from data marketing firm Cambridge Analytica reveals the way this company manipulated recent U.S. elections and Brexit leave campaign through Facebook apps.

The fact that Facebook tracks your online behavior even when you are not logged in or even if you have never entered the Facebook domain is kind of old news but still worth mentioning.

More and more people worldwide have started to close their accounts or at least, use the social media platform as rarely as possible. Find out interesting details why some people decided to give up Facebook.

This feeds a negative, self-reinforcing loop that erodes people’s trust in one another and makes room for malicious actors to publicize their own polarizing, ill-intentioned agenda.

Although a social media platform as well, on Twitter, you get to know people and establish connections you otherwise couldn’t. Business people, journalists and marketers connect and collaborate on Twitter.

According to a recent study, it seems Twitter doesn’t do better when it comes to trust, even though it didn’t disappoint people the way Facebook did. Apparently, 1 in 5 Twitter users say they will quit within a year. Particularly, Twitter users have started to lose trust in news that are shared on the platform.

Here are significant details regarding the differences between Facebook and Twitter.

How can the Internet regain people’s trust?

Re-gaining trust in the internet is a long process but it can be done in simple, baby steps.

Solutions for rebuilding trust in the Internet

  • Businesses as well as organizations that handle people’s data should protect their private information with greater responsibility.
  • Websites and companies could start by becoming more transparent and making things clearer for online users. They could inform users how and for what purpose they collect and store data, regardless if they provide a free or paid service.
  • Governments should stop requiring third parties to create back doors, so, they could access data in the name of “a more secure society”.

The entire internet community should work together and create solutions that would increase online privacy. A good example is creating end-to-end encryption of data.

How you and I can make the Internet a better place

Once an internet user, it’s hard to imagine anyone will simply drop going online and never come back again. That’s probably not the best solution anyway. However, you can re-think your online habits and discover a whole new angle of the world wide web.

  1. You could try to quit using the web at least for a while

Check out interesting stories of people who quit the internet for a year or six months and see what effects this has had on them.

Some people realized that scrolling endlessly on Facebook, taking stupid quizzes and getting depressed each time their friends posted good news and happy pictures.

Paul, a tech writer revealed about his experience of quitting the online world: “…one big change was snail mail. I got a PO Box this year, and I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to see the box stuffed with letters from readers. It’s something tangible, and something hard to simulate with an e-card.

In neatly spaced, precisely adorable lettering, one girl wrote on a physical piece of paper: “Thank you for leaving the internet.” Not as an insult, but as a compliment. That letter meant the world to me.”

  1. Be as authentic as you can be in the online world

The Internet of the future must be built on the values it was defined in the past. The world wide web should become open, globally-connected, secure and trustworthy again.

There is probably a long way to it, but we cannot lose hope. We have the power to change the rules and make them in our benefit.

A simple thing you can do is: don’t mingle or join a crowd you feel it doesn’t suit you! Specifically, don’t make an account on thousands of websites, just because they’re trendy or your friends advise you to. Carefully choose your digital apps and paths. Think how beneficial they are before you decide if they’re a right fit for you.

  1. Get inspired from what organizations do to protect the web

Check the EFF’s example – an American organization that fights for people’s digital freedom. The Center for Cyber Safety and Regulation educates children and adults about online threats.

  1. Be an active digital rights fighter

Let’s not be ignorant when bad or illegal things happen on the internet and take a stand. Whether it’s a simple comment on social media trying to raise awareness or an official complaint to the government, the point is to express our concerns. Report fake profiles, mark spam emails as spam, report identity theft and other cybercrimes.

Also, educate yourself, help educate others and teach through example. Choose your tools wisely and stick close to your principles. The road to what you went on Google to search for is long and filled with tempting pastimes.

The more often and the more people will do this, the more chances to see the change we want to see in the digital world.

Let’s make the better internet, so that it can help humanity take it to the next level, as our legacy.


About the author

Dana Vioreanu
Dana Vioreanu

Even though her degree is in Sociology, which technically has nothing to do with writing, all her previous jobs implied working for websites, taking care of content and writing articles.
By the way, if you’re interested in studying abroad, feel free to ask her a few pointers, because for about two years and a half, she learned almost everything there is to know about international studies.


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