NSA surveillance causes US writers to self-censor

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

November 13, 2013

Chilling Effects has teamed up with PEN America (the US branch of PEN, an international literary and human rights organization that works to protect free expression and defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, persecuted or attacked thanks to their profession) to release a new report detailing how writers in the US have reacted to Edwards Snowden’s revelations about blanket NSA surveillance.

The results make for very uncomfortable reading as they confirm suspicions that the use of mass surveillance technologies has had a highly negative impact on free speech, innovation and the free flow of ideas, with many writers choosing to self-censor in some way. Of the 528 PEN members who responded to the online survey,

  • 1 in 6 writers has avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance
  • Another 1 in 6 has seriously considered doing so
  • 28% (nearly a third) have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12% have seriously considered doing so
  • 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, and another 9% have seriously considered it
  • 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11% have seriously considered it
  • 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious and another 12% have seriously considered it;
  • 3% have declined opportunities to meet (in person, or electronically) people who might be deemed security threats by the government, and another 4% have seriously considered it

So much for America being ‘the land of the free.’

The report, which also asked writers to submit their personal experiences and thoughts, identified the following themes,

1. PEN writers now assume that their communications are monitored

This has led to fear and uncertainty, which ‘is so widespread that several survey respondents expressed fear at using email or an online survey format to articulate their concerns in writing or to explain what they have done in response to the reports of government surveillance.’  As one writer noted, ‘Even taking this survey makes me feel somewhat nervous’.

Additional concerns raised included ‘the chilling effect of encroaching surveillance on creativity and free expression’, and worry about the impact of US government surveillance internationally, and how it would legitimise other counties’ surveillance practices

2. The assumption that they are under surveillance is harming freedom of expression by prompting writers to self-censor their work in multiple ways, including;

 a) Reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects

This strikes at the heart of not just a free press, but also of a free and creative writing establishment, with writers reporting ‘self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.’

These are precisely the kinds of subject that a free and open society should be having a frank and informed debate about, and the fact that many writers are avoiding them is deeply disturbing.

b) Reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects

Self-censorship of research includes writers’ avoiding internet search tools (such as search engines like Google), emails, and other forms of communication for fear that using them would lead to monitoring by the NSA.  As the report notes,

‘Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it. We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution.’

c) Reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will endanger their counterparts by doing so

Fear that talking with contacts abroad would endanger them was high on the list of worries, and 81% were very concerned and 15% somewhat concerned (96% total) about the issue of journalists and non-fiction writers protecting their sources. Also, fear of constant surveillance restricts who writers are willing to talk to, and thus negatively impacts society’s ability understand,  interact meaningfully with, and draw creative inspiration from often marginalised sections of society,

‘because writers develop ideas through conversations, including conversations with radicals, dissidents, pariahs, victims of violence, or even outlaws, [and] chilling their exchanges will impoverish thought.’

Measures writers can take to keep freedom of speech alive in the US

The report puts forward some preliminary recommendations that unsurprisingly boil down to calling on the US government to suspend its dragnet surveillance programs, and reaffirm its commitment to preserving and protecting the privacy needed for freedom of speech.

However we have somewhat less than total faith in the US government (or for that matter pretty near any government) making any meaningful moves towards scaling back state intrusion into every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Fortunately, while it is technology that allows this appalling intrusion into personal privacy to happen, technology can also be highly effective in defending against it.

In our Ultimate Privacy Guide we provide what we hope is good overview of things you can do to protect yourself against the likes of the NSA, almost all of which can be used by writers protect their own and their contact’s identities, perform research anonymously, keep in contact with others without endangering them or arousing the interest of the security services, and much more.

The first thing is to use VPN (or for even greater security but much less convenience Tor) religiously, in order to ensure anonymity when on line. PGP encrypted email is good, but encrypted VoIP for voice conversations and OTG for encrypted messaging, when combined with VPN are better, as they not only hide the content of a  conversation, but also that a conversation has even been held at all.

Although hardly a ringing endorsement of free speech, VPN allows writers to establish online identities that are not tied to their real world lives, and can thus publish material that they are afraid to in their real name. Search engines such as DuckDuckGo, which do not log users’ searches, are also fantastic tools for authors afraid being monitored but who need to conduct research.

In short, VPN and related tools provide a means for writers fight back against government surveillance (and consequent intimidation), allowing them to research subjects as they see fit, keep communications with contacts secret (and even hide the existence of contacts), and if necessary publish their works anonymously (which is better than not at all).

The report notes of respondents that ‘13% have taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, and another 11% have seriously considered it’. If the alternative is self-censorship and the consequent impoverishment of information available to the public, then we sincerely hope more writers and journalists start taking these steps. That such methods, traditionally the recourse of dissidents in places such as Iran and China, are increasingly necessary in the United States, is a damning and very worrying indictment of NSA practices.

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