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Tech on the mind of voters

Back when he was president, Bill Clinton admitted he didn’t know much about the Internet. He was covered, though, because Vice President Al Gore knew a great deal about it. But if you’re running for president in 2008 you had better be Net savvy. That was one finding of a recent survey conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee. The poll was released Wednesday during that organization’s “State of the Net” event on Capitol Hill, where I participated as a panel moderator.

The 3,585 adults polled in late January were asked, “Do you think the next president will know as much about the Internet as you?” Nearly 45 percent said “yes – because how important the Internet has become,” while 22 percent predicted the next president wouldn’t be so Net savvy but should be. Only 12 percent said it doesn’t matter if the president has “a good grasp of the Internet.”

One thing is for sure: The Internet has become a major source of voter information about presidential candidates. Nearly 48 percent considered the Net their primary source, compared with 31 percent for TV and 13 percent for radio. “Other” accounted for 8 percent. For some reason the survey failed to list newspapers as an option. (Of course, some of the most comprehensive news Web sites are operated by newspapers and media networks.)

While voters may use the Internet to learn about candidates, they don’t want to use it to pick one. Only 19 percent felt that it would be a “good thing” to be able to vote online, while 67 percent worried it would lead to voter fraud and “undermine our elections.” Technology issues, rightfully, come up in political discussions, though I haven’t heard much from the candidates so far about such issues as network neutrality, Internet privacy, child protection and other Net-related topics.

The survey asked people to rank various scenarios that they would consider to be an invasion of privacy. Eleven percent selected “someone you know posts a picture of you in swimsuit,” while 10.7 percent were concerned about someone posting “a picture of you obviously drunk.” An astounding 49 percent selected “your geo-location was available to others (such as GPS).”

Most cell phones sold today have GPS chips that can locate you. And some services, such as Loopt, allow you to reveal that information to others, albeit with privacy controls that let you limit who can track you.

Less than 4 percent feel that the Internet makes them “dumber by distracting me and wasting my time,” while 89 percent think it’s made them “smarter.”

People were divided about what age is appropriate for a child to have e-mail. Forty-three percent said 13 years or older, 15 percent said 16 to 18, and 2.4 percent said e-mail should be for adults only.

To me, the most interesting and somewhat disturbing finding is that nearly two-thirds of adults (63 percent) feel that kids younger than 16 shouldn’t be allowed to participate in “chat rooms and other social-networking sites.”

Of the adults polled, 23 percent chose 13 to 15 as a minimum age. But 36 percent selected 16 to 18, while 28 percent said “not until they are an adult.” Most sites, including Facebook, require a child to be 13, while MySpace sets the minimum age at 14.

Before I proceed, a disclaimer: I co-wrote “MySpace Unraveled” and help run, a non-profit that receives funding from some social-networking companies. That said, what bothers me about this finding is that if these adults got their way, kids younger than 16, or even 18, would be prevented from using services that many kids enjoy and benefit from. While some kids do things on these sites that are dangerous, mean or inappropriate, the vast majority of them seem to behave themselves and avoid dangerous activities and people.

It strikes me that what we need is a double-sided education program. One side should teach high-risk kids to be more cautious. The other side should teach adults and parents to be a bit more understanding.