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Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives Writers to Self-Censor



In November 2013, PEN American Center published Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives Writers to Self-Censor

PEN has long argued that surveillance is harmful to creativity and free expression. To more precisely define how it is harmful, PEN undertook a survey of over 520 American writers as an opportunity to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs impacts writers’ thinking, research, and writing.

The results of this survey confirm PEN’s position: Writers are overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, and are engaging in self-censorship as a result. Freedom of expression is under threat, and as a result, freedom of information is as well. Fully 85% of writers responding to PEN’s survey are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and 73% of writers have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.

Furthermore, 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 U.S. 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 government’s intentions for using the data it gathers, have 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:

  • 28% 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 Web sites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious, and another 12% have seriously considered it;
  • 13% have taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, and another 11% 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.

PEN’s survey also demonstrated surveillance’s harm to freedom of the press. Among survey respondents who are journalists, 30% 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 as a result; and also if sources conclude that they cannot safely speak to journalists, and stay silent as a result.

Click here to read the full report