A major new poll of public perceptions of freedom across various countries shows that people in the West can often feel less free than those under tyrannical regimes.
The research, conducted by GlobeScan for the BBC, shows that people in certain Western democracies, most notably the United States, are more suspicious of their governments and less trusting of the press than those in more authoritarian states.
The polling, which was commissioned as part of a series of BBC features called “Freedom 2014”, asked 17,589 people across 17 different countries to rate their governments and media in terms of how free they felt they were.
One question on freedom from online government surveillance gave some counterintuitive results.
In America and Germany, more than half of those surveyed said they did not feel free from government surveillance online. The figure was highest in the U.S., with 54 percent saying they were not free, compared to just 35 percent saying they felt free. This is the worst score for any country surveyed.
Germany, another nation which likes to think of itself as a bastion of liberal democracy, didn’t fare much better, with 51 percent saying they were not free and 48 percent saying they were.
This is in stark contrast to China, where 76 percent perceive themselves to be free of government surveillance, and Russia, which scored 61 percent.
Lionel Bellier from GlobeScan told the BBC that these surprising results may be due different levels of internet penetration in various countries. People in countries like the U.S. and Germany, where over three quarters of the population are connected, may be more acutely aware of online surveillance methods than those from countries where much of the population remain unexposed to the online world.
“Countries with high internet connectivity feel more exposed to the Snowden era of online surveillance compared to countries with low levels of internet-connected homes,” he says.
“In countries with lower connectivity, perceptions of what constitutes government surveillance are felt and lived differently, perhaps with less anxiety.”
Caroline Baylon of the think-tank Chatham House added: “There is an increasing sense that everything you do online now is being monitored, or at least can be monitored, by either governments or corporations.”
“I think Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency, including on its own citizens and close allies, have undercut trust in the actions of many governments,” she said.
“Such large-scale surveillance is no longer the prerogative of authoritarian governments like China.”
Another surprising result is that only 42 percent of Americans believe their media to be free from interference from government and other sources. This is a nine-point drop since 2007 for the land of press freedom and the First Amendment.
The figure is even worse for France, where just 24 percent believe their press to be free, two percent lower than Russia, Pakistan and Mexico. In South Korea, supposedly a vanguard of Western liberalism against the despotic communist North, a mere 14 percent believe they have a free press.