How surveillance drives writers to self-censor
The world’s leading literary and human rights organisation, PEN works in more than 100 countries to protect free expression and to defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of their profession. PEN America, the largest branch of PEN International, commissioned the report, ‘Chilling Effects’, to try to find out just how surveillance conducted by the state limits discourse and distorts the flow of information and ideas.
In the human rights and free expression communities, it is a widely shared assumption that the explosive growth and proliferating uses of surveillance technologies must be harmful – to intellectual freedom, to creativity, and to social discourse. But how exactly do we know, and how can we demonstrate, that pervasive surveillance is harming freedom of expression and creative freedom?
The question of the harms caused by widespread surveillance in democracies, like the surveillance being conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency, is under-explored. In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs influences writers’ thinking, research, and writing. Eighty six per cent of participants described themselves as writers, the remainder are editors, translators and agents.
The initial survey results show that writers are significantly more likely than the general public to disapproveof “the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts” – 66 per cent of writers vs. 44 per cent of the general public. Only 12 per cent of writers approve, compared with 50 per cent of thegeneral public. Eighty five per cent of writers responding to PEN’s survey are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and 73 per cent of writers have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.
According to the report, writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship, with the result that 28 per cent have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12 per cent have seriously considered doing so. Twenty four per cent have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, and another nine per cent have seriously considered it. Sixteen per cent have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11 per cent have seriously considered it.
PEN has long argued that surveillance poses risks to creativity and free expression. The results of this survey – the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance – substantiate PEN’s concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.
The survey allowed participants to offer long-form comments on surveillance. PEN also invited members to share their thoughts and personal experiences via email. In reviewing the responses, themes emerged centering on writers’ self-censorship and fear that their communications would bring harm to themselves, their friends, or sources.
PEN writers now assume that their communications are monitored. The belief that they are under surveillance is harming freedom of expression by prompting writers to self-censor their work in multiple ways, including reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects, reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects, and reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will endanger their counterparts by doing so.
Many PEN writers remarked that they simply take for granted that the government is watching everything. As one writer commented, “I assume everything I do electronically is subject to monitoring.”
This assumption is striking: in a short span of time, the United States has shifted from a society in which the right to privacy in personal communications was considered inviolate, to a society in which many writers assume they have already lost the right to privacy and now expect to be spied upon almost constantly.
PEN’s research begins to document the chilling effect of encroaching surveillance on creativity and free expression. Fear and uncertainty regarding surveillance 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.”
Writers are self-censoring their work and their online activity due to their fears that commenting on, researching, or writing about certain issues will cause them harm. Writers reported 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. The fear of surveillance – and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers – has prompted PEN writers to change their behavior in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information.
The results of the survey regarding forms of self-censorship were particularly striking – and troubling. One in six writers has avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance.
One writer said, “In my limited experience, the writers who feel most chilled, who are being most cautious, are friends and colleagues who write about the Middle East.” Another said: “I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to avoid certain conversation topics in electronic emails out of concern that those communications may be surveilled.”
Writers’ ability to do research is also hindered by a fear of surveillance.
Writers reported avoiding Internet search tools, email, and online communication tools for fear that their search terms and conversations would be monitored.
One writer said, “I was considering researching a book about civil defense preparedness during the Cold War: what were the expectations on the part of Americans and the government? What would have happened if a nuclear conflagration had taken place? What contingency plans did the government have? How did the pall of imminent disaster affect Americans? But as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”
Another said, “I feel that increased government surveillance has had a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don’t think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent.”
Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it. As the report says, 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. We do know that our studies of the private papers of generations of past luminaries have yielded valuable information that aids not only our understanding of their work and lives, but also our own thinking on contemporary problems.
One writer noted, “As a professor of literature, I lament that contemporary writers’ papers (hard copy and electronic) will potentially be less useful to future scholars because of self-censorship in the face of these governmental surveillance programs.”
Self-censorship in communicating with friends abroad and sources
Writers expressed fear that contact with friends or sources abroad could result in harm either to themselves or to their friends or sources, further evidence that U.S. surveillance programs cast a shadow over writers’ daily communications. Forty-four per cent of writers thought it was “very likely” that an email to someone abroad who was affiliated with an anti-American organisation would be read by the government, and another 48 per cent described it as “realistically possible.”
Thirty-nine per cent of writers thought it was “very likely” that a phone call made to someone living in an area of the world known for its antipathy toward the U.S. would be monitored and recorded by government officials, and another 52 per cent thought it was “realistically possible.”
The impact extends beyond curtailing writers’ everyday freedom of speech. It affects their work, and the harm done to their work impacts society at large “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”.
As one writer said, “In preparing for the Translation Slam at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, I Skyped a writer, a Palestinian who lives on the West Bank. I was tempted to ‘talk politics,’ since the West Bank was so much in the news, but I deliberately steered clear of the topic, figuring that our conversation was being monitored. I normally wouldn’t have skirted such an obvious topic, but I was concerned about keeping him out of trouble – thinking any controversial remark might make it harder for him to travel.”
Protecting sources is a long-standing concern for journalists and non-fiction writers. The details of the NSA surveillance program have heightened this concern and left many writers wondering how to protect sources in this new environment, or if it is even possible to protect them. Eighty one per cent of writers responding to PEN’s survey are very concerned about government efforts to compel journalists to reveal sources of classified information, and another 15 per cent are somewhat concerned – 96 per cent in all.
Among survey respondents who are journalists, 93 per cent are very concerned about such efforts. Thirty per cent of journalists reported having taken extra precautions to protect sources’ anonymity. The NSA’s surveillance will damage the ability of the press to report on the important issues of our time if journalists refrain from contacting sources for fear that their sources will be found out and harmed, or if sources conclude that they cannot safely speak to journalists and thus stay silent.
One writer commented, “I write books, most recently about civil liberties, and to protect the content of certain interviews, I am very careful what I put in emails to sources, even those who are not requesting anonymity. I’m also circumspect at times on the phone with them – again, even though they may not be requesting anonymity and the information is not classified. Some of those precautions remind me of my days as Moscow Bureau Chief under Communism, when to communicate with dissidents and refuseniks we had to avoid substantive phone conversations, meet in person in public, etc. It’s not a good feeling to have reporters’ work in your own country’s capital resemble ours in Moscow in the bad old days.”
The report acknowledges there are some limitations to the research that are worth mentioning. For one, this is a survey of writers who are PEN members and thus not necessarily a reflection of the views of all writers in the U.S. For another, the survey was conducted exclusively online, which means that those who don’t have an e-mail address – or who don’t check their e-mail regularly – may be underrepresented in the data. Thirdly, some who received the e-mail may have had no interest in the topic of government surveillance and its impact on writers so reflexively hit delete before ever viewing the first survey question. Finally – and perhaps somewhat ironically – this is an online survey about surveillance, surveillance that mostly takes place online; thus, it is likely that those PEN members who are especially concerned about Internet surveillance and the vulnerabilities of online data may have elected not to participate.
However, the findings of the survey and subsequent responses from PEN writers substantiate significant impingement on freedom of expression as a result of U.S. Government surveillance. While it may not be surprising that those who rely on free expression for their craft and livelihood feel greater unease about surveillance than most, the impact on the free flow of information should concern us all. As writers continue to restrict their research, correspondence, and writing on certain topics, the public pool of knowledge shrinks. What important information and perspectives will we miss? What have we missed already?
This excerpt from the report ‘Chilling Effects’ is published with permission of PEN America.
“Writers reported 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.”
“Fear and uncertainty regarding surveillance 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.”
“Protecting sources is a long-standing concern for journalists and non-fiction writers. The details of the NSA surveillance program have heightened this concern and left many writers wondering how to protect sources in this new environment, or if it is even possible to protect them.”