Less than half of region's users believe it is safe to post political opinions on the internet
Less than half of the Middle East population believes it is safe to express political opinions on the snternet, while one-third worry that governments or large institutions conduct surveillance of their online activities, according to research by a Qatar university.
However, despite concerns over freedom of expression online, the survey also revealed that less than half (46 percent) of respondents believe individuals should be able to criticise governments on the Internet.
More than 10,000 people were surveyed in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt during the inaugural research by Northwestern University.
Titled "Media Use in the Middle East - An Eight-Nation Survey", the report revealed some surprising and contradictory results.
While 44 percent of respondents expressed some doubt as to whether people should be free to criticize governments or powerful institutions online, 45 percent think public officials will care more about what they think if they use the Internet and 48 percent believe it will make them more influential.
On average, 38 percent worry about governments surveilling their online activities, while the result was far higher in some countries.
"The implied concern is fairly consistent in almost all countries covered, but more acute in Saudi Arabia, where the majority (53 percent) of those surveyed expressed this concern," the report says.
Adults in Lebanon (75 percent) and Tunisia (63 percent) are the most pessimistic about the direction of their countries and feel they are on the "wrong track".
However, almost two-thirds (61 percent) of respondents agree that the quality of news reporting in the Arab world has improved in the past two years, compared to 14 percent that disagree. However, less than half think the news sources in their countries are, in general, credible.
The report also showed that online transactions are rare in the Middle East, with only 35 percent of the population purchasing items online and only 16 percent investing online.
The findings follow a preliminary report NU-Q released last April that showed web users in the Middle East support the freedom to express opinions online, but they also believe the Internet should be more tightly regulated.
"While this may seem a puzzling paradox, it has not been uncommon for people the world over to support freedom in the abstract but less so in practice,"NU-Q dean and CEO Everette Dennis said.
The results of the survey, conducted in collaboration with Harris Interactive, were released on Tuesday at the International Communication Association (ICA) Conference in London.
The university says it will be the first in an annual series of reports produced in collaboration with the World Internet Project, one of the world's most extensive studies on the Internet, in which NU-Q is a participating institution. NU-Q and WIP signed an agreement earlier in the year, providing a global platform for the current research.