Global Chilling raises alarm about self-censoring: Report on impact of mass surveillance on writers
From August 28 to October 15, 2014, the PEN American Center carried out an international survey of 772 writers in 50 countries to investigate how government surveillance influences their thinking, research and writing, as well as their views of government surveillance by the US and its impact around the world. The report, Global Chilling, summarises the survey findings most relevant to the current debate on the future of mass surveillance programs. PEN is releasing the findings of the report now in the hope that they will inform public and government debates on the future of mass surveillance.
Because freedom of expression is so central to the craft of writers, they may be considered particularly sensitive to encroachments on their rights to communicate, obtain and impart information and voice their ideas and opinions. But the freedoms that writers rely on daily are the underpinnings of all free societies. Accordingly, in the words of novelist E.L. Doctorow, writers can be considered the “canaries in the coalmine” when it comes to the impact of surveillance on privacy and free expression in society writ large.
The survey results are striking, and confirm that the impact of mass surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, other US government authorities, and US allies — including those in the ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States — is rippling outward to curtail freedom of expression around the world. Levels of concern about government surveillance in democratic countries are now nearly as high as in non-democratic states with long legacies of pervasive state surveillance.
Writers living in liberal democratic countries have begun to engage in self-censorship at levels approaching those seen in non-democratic countries, indicating that mass surveillance has badly shaken writers’ faith that democratic governments will respect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and that — because of pervasive surveillance — writers are concerned that expressing certain views even privately or researching certain topics may lead to negative consequences.
These results confirm and expand upon the findings of PEN’s October 2013 survey of US writers, published in PEN’s Chilling Effects report. That survey found US writers were overwhelmingly worried about mass surveillance, and were engaging in multiple forms of self-censorship as a result. When combined with the results of this survey of international writers, the harm caused by surveillance to free expression, freedom of thought and creative freedom is unmistakable.
Levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democratic countries — those classified as “free” by US non-governmental watchdog Freedom House — match, or even exceed, the levels reported by US writers. More than 1 in 3 writers in “free” countries (34 per cent) said they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or had seriously considered it, due to concerns about surveillance, compared to more than 1 in 4 US writers (27 per cent) surveyed by PEN.
Mass surveillance has also gravely damaged the United States’ reputation as a haven for free expression at home, and a champion of free expression abroad. In “free” countries, 36 per cent of writers surveyed think that freedom of expression enjoys less protection in the US than in their country. Only 17 per cent of these writers think that freedom of expression enjoys more protection in the US than in their country. Furthermore, approximately 6 in 10 writers in both Western Europe (60 per cent) and the Five Eyes countries - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (57 per cent), think US credibility “has been significantly damaged for the long term” by its surveillance programs. Another 3 in 10 writers in these regions think US credibility “has been weakened but can be restored” (28 percent and 29 percent respectively).
Key Finding #1
Writers in democratic and non-democratic countries are equally worried about levels of government surveillance in their countries.
Vast majorities of writers around the world said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about levels of government surveillance in their countries, including 75 per cent in countries classified as “free” by Freedom House, 84 per cent in countries classified as “partly free”, and 80 per cent in “not free” countries.
These levels are consistent with the findings of PEN’s October 2013 survey of US writers, which showed that 85 per cent of American writers were very or somewhat worried about current levels of government surveillance. The high level of concern among US writers mirrors that of writers living in the other four countries that make up the Five Eyes surveillance, 84 per cent of whom are very or somewhat worried about government surveillance. Writers are not alone when it comes to their level of concern about government surveillance. Eighty per cent of Americans surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll released on November 12, 2014, agree that Americans should be worried about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications.
Writers’ fear and uncertainty regarding surveillance is so widespread that several survey respondents expressed concern over submitting their responses to PEN’s survey — a concern also expressed by US writers completing the October 2013 survey. Respondents to our international survey remarked:
– “As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger — if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.”
– “Not to sound paranoid, but I hesitated — and thought to answer very honestly — these questions.”
Ongoing revelations of the broad scope of government surveillance programs in many democracies continue to fuel fear over surveillance and its impact on free expression. One respondent noted:
– “What we have learned in the past couple of years and continue to learn, and what I had already suspected for many years, has cast a ghostly and intimidating cloak over many personal and professional communications.”
Another respondent commented:
– “As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I have always felt blessed to live in the UK, a relatively safe and free country where mostly people can live without fear. However the revelations of Edward Snowden, [NSA] whistleblower have made me think about what ‘freedom’ means in the 21st century and what we are and have been prepared to ‘pay’ for it. I can no longer take for granted that my children will enjoy the same benefits as I have. I believe that most UK citizens are now regularly under levels of surveillance that make the Stasi seem amateurish. I may be paranoid, but I believe not.”
The passage of new national security-related legislation granting greater surveillance powers in countries like the UK and Australia are prompting greater concern among writers, leading one Australian respondent to comment:
– “Had I taken this survey two weeks ago my answers would be different. With the introduction of legislation giving Australian security agencies greater powers in regards to all communications (as a reaction to terrorism) I think the freedom of expression of writers and publishers is under greater threat. It feels unprecedented and very concerning.”
Several respondents particularly noted their fear that communications data being collected and stored under mass surveillance programs today, even if not being utilized improperly by current officials, could be misused by future governments:
– “Stored and analyzed data today that does not have any immediate consequences on the life of a minority-language author like me, can later become extremely dangerous, following a change towards a much more totalitarian government.”
– “The government has put in place an apparatus of surveillance, supported by laws enabling them to go far into people’s private sphere, that can be easily misused if we had a power grab.”
Key finding #2
Writers around the world are engaging in self-censorship due to fear of surveillance.
Large numbers of writers in liberal democratic countries have engaged in various forms of self-censorship out of fear that their communications may be monitored by a government authority. PEN’s survey asked respondents whether they had engaged in different types of self-censorship in their written work, personal communications, and online activity.
Writers are reluctant to speak about, write about, or conduct research on topics that they think may draw government scrutiny. This has a devastating impact on freedom of information as well: If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers — particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today — may be greatly impoverished.
Key finding #3
Mass surveillance by the US government has damaged its reputation as a protector of freedom of expression at home.
The US government’s mass surveillance programs have clearly damaged the country’s reputation for offering some of the strongest protections for free speech in the world, under the rubric of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. PEN’s survey asked writers if they thought freedom of expression enjoys more protection in the US, less protection in the US, or the same compared to the country in which the writer currently lives. The results indicate that particularly in other “free” countries, writers do not believe freedom of expression is better protected in the US than in their home countries.
Large percentages of writers in regions that are largely democratic think the US offers less protection for free expression than their home countries: 43 per cent in Western Europe and 33 per cent in the Five Eyes countries. Only 14 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively, think free expression is more protected in the US than at home, and another 1 in 3 believe levels of protection for free expression in the US and in their own country are about the same (30 per cent and 36 per cent respectively).
Writers in Eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific are more likely to think the US offers more protection for free expression: 40 per cent in Eastern Europe and 50 cent in Asia-Pacific. Even so, 12 per cent and 17 per cent respectively think the US offers less protection than their home countries, and 33 per cent and 15 per cent believe levels of protection for free expression in the US and in their own country are about the same.
Some writers were scathing in their assessment of the damage the US has done to its own constitutional values, and the long-term impact this will have around the world, with one respondent commenting:
– “The USA has fundamentally damaged the ‘Western’ model of human and citizens’ rights, turning large parts of the world’s population (including the US population) into right-less objects of surveillance and secret intelligence operations.”
Key finding #4
Mass surveillance by the US government has damaged its reputation as a champion of freedom of expression around the world.
US mass surveillance programs have damaged its reputation not only in terms of upholding free expression at home, but also as a champion of free expression around the world. Writers were asked, “In your view, how have recent revelations about US government surveillance programs affected the United States’ credibility on free expression issues around the world?”
The results are striking, particularly in democratic regions: Approximately 6 in 10 writers in both Western Europe (60 per cent) and the Five Eyes (57 per cent) countries think US credibility “has been significantly damaged for the long term” by its surveillance programs. Another 3 in 10 writers think US credibility “has been weakened but can be restored” (28 per cent and 29 per cent respectively).
Large majorities of writers in Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific region also agree that mass surveillance has damaged US credibility on free expression, though they are somewhat more optimistic that credibility can be restored. Forty-three percent of writers in Eastern Europe and 41 per cent of writers in Asia-Pacific think US credibility has been weakened, but can be restored, while 36 per cent and 38 per cent respectively think US credibility has been significantly damaged for the long term.
Several respondents noted the negative impact that mass surveillance has had on the US reputation abroad, as well as that of its allies:
– “The unlawful secret intelligence activities of the US and its closest allies strengthens and encourages totalitarian states and despots through its blatant harm to human and citizen’s rights. We are becoming hostages of the self-destruction of the ‘western’ value system.”
– “This has seriously damaged the reputation of the US and the UK governments and their security agencies, and, what is probably much worse, led to a generalized cynicism about the US and UK and their policy motives and current cultural and political climates.”
On the basis of these findings as well as those contained in PEN’s October 2013 Chilling Effects report on the impact of surveillance on US writers, PEN urges the US government to take immediate action to reform mass surveillance programs.
Writers’ accounts of the impact of mass surveillance sound a loud alarm bell about the pervasive damage that intrusive surveillance is wreaking on privacy and unfettered expression worldwide. US mass surveillance has badly damaged freedom of expression around the world, and has undercut the United States’ credibility as a global advocate for free expression.
Under both the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the US is obligated not to infringe upon the free expression rights of its own people. Both President Obama’s Administration and those of his immediate predecessors have prioritized the promotion and defense of free expression and human rights worldwide as a key policy pillar.
Current surveillance practices are undermining these obligations and commitments, and may risk permanent damage to the US’ global stature and influence on human rights.
Both Congress and the executive branch should implement reforms to mass surveillance programs to ensure that constitutional and international human rights to free expression, privacy, freedfom of thought, and freedom of information are fully protected.
In particular, the provisions of the Patriot Act used by the government to collect phone and other personal records of Americans in bulk should be allowed to expire on June 1, 2015 if appropriate reforms have not been enacted. Reform measures should also include full protections for the rights of non-US nationals by reforming or ending surveillance programs carried out under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333: As the United Nations has repeatedly stated, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the US is a party, requires it to respect the human rights to privacy and free expression of all individuals affected by its surveillance programs, regardless of whether they reside in US territory.
To reaffirm the US government’s commitment to preserving and protecting the privacy necessary for intellectual and creative freedom, reform measures should include:
- suspending the dragnet monitoring and collection of domestic and international communications of US citizens pending the restoration of constitutionally required privacy and due process protections;
- suspending the wholesale, unwarranted collection of telecommunications and digital metadata, also pending the restoration of privacy and due process protections;
- reviewing the dragnet monitoring and collection of international communications and bringing such programs into compliance with established human rights protections, including privacy and due process guarantees;
- making the right to be free of unwarranted surveillance a cornerstone of US surveillance policy and practice; and
- implementing stronger oversight measures for US mass surveillance programs, and greater transparency regarding the full scope of those programs, including the publication of all legal and policy documents that include legal interpretations of US laws and orders on surveillance, with only those redactions that are truly necessary to protect legitimate national security interests.
This report was drafted by Katy Glenn Bass, Deputy Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN, based on research conceived and carried out by PEN American Center in close consultation with the FDR Group. The findings are based on the results from an online survey conducted between August 28 and October 15, 2014. A full report of all the findings will be released later in 2015.
This is an excerpt from Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers. The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney supports PEN Sydney.
Mass surveillance has badly shaken writers’ faith that democratic governments will respect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
Writers can be considered the “canaries in the coalmine” when it comes to the impact of surveillance on privacy and free expression in society writ large.
“I believe that most UK citizens are now regularly under levels of surveillance that make the Stasi seem amateurish. I may be paranoid, but I believe not.”