Dec 22, 2021 - Technology

Exclusive poll: Americans want government action on tech

Public opinion on technology and privacy
Data: Axios/Illinois Tech/YouGov; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Big majorities of Americans think tech companies are too big and too nosy and want government to rein them in, an exclusive poll by Axios and the Illinois Institute of Technology finds.

Why it matters: As technology's role in American life increases, people on both sides of today's political divide have grown wary of its influence.

The big picture: A majority of the 1500 survey respondents expressed concern about the use of artificial intelligence, the reach of algorithms, the state of their online privacy, the size of tech firms and dependence on smartphones.

Artificial intelligence: More than 70% of those polled distrust the use of AI for self-driving buses and airplane autopilot systems (early autopilot systems in airplanes have existed since 1912).

  • Sixty-nine percent said they would limit the use of AI for hiring decisions. Nearly 60% distrust AI for processing loan applications and setting mortgage rates.
  • Both liberals and conservatives overwhelmingly agree that there should be public or government oversight of the use of algorithms (71%).

Antitrust and consolidation of power: Three-quarters of those polled said tech companies are too big (80% of liberals and 83% of conservatives).

  • A smaller 53% of respondents said the government should be responsible for ensuring competition and more choices in online services.

Privacy: Most poll respondents (78%) said they feel they are targeted in online ads based on their web activity. And 50% said they think they're targeted for online ads based on their offline conversations.

  • Eighty-one percent think the government should be doing more to protect online privacy.

Smartphone dependence: More than half of those polled (56%) believe they are somewhat dependent on their smartphones. A smaller percentage (31%) say they feel anxiety or withdrawal without their devices.

  • Meanwhile, 46% of respondents say their friends feel anxious without their smartphones.

What they're saying: "We’re in a situation in which we already depend so deeply on technology for all of these aspects of our day-to-day lives, but at the same time, we have a deep distrust of this same tech," said Christine Himes, dean of Lewis College of Science and Letters at Illinois Tech.

  • "[The results] may be indicative of increasing distrust for all institutions, whether they are secular, religious, governmental, private or public," said George M. Langlois, executive director of the Center for Research and Service at Illinois Tech. "It does seem the public wants more control and is open to support changes that reflect that.”

What we're watching: Government agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission want to make rules for online advertising, the use of algorithms and AI and the size of tech companies.

  • But to achieve those goals they'll likely need a sluggish Congress to grant them new powers.

Go deeper: Read the full survey results.

Methodology: The survey was conducted by YouGov from July 25 to Aug. 5. 1898 respondents were interviewed, and the final sample of 1,500 responses were matched across several demographic categories and weighted to form a representative sample of the U.S. population. The overall margin of error is +/- 3.63. 

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