It’s no secret that we’ve long suspected that the revelations of NSA’s panopticon powers would result in self-censorship online, and now we have evidence in the form of an academic study published right here in Berkeley.
Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use [PDF] has just appeared online from the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, and it’s well worth a read.
Reuters sums up:
Internet traffic to Wikipedia pages summarizing knowledge about terror groups and their tools plunged nearly 30 percent after revelations of widespread Web monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency, suggesting that concerns about government snooping are hurting the ordinary pursuit of information.
A forthcoming paper in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal analyzes the fall in traffic, arguing that it provides the most direct evidence to date of a so-called “chilling effect,” or negative impact on legal conduct, from the intelligence practices disclosed by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Author Jonathon Penney, a fellow at the University of Toronto’s interdisciplinary Citizen Lab, examined monthly views of Wikipedia articles on 48 topics identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as subjects that they track on social media, including Al Qaeda, dirty bombs and jihad.
In the 16 months prior to the first major Snowden stories in June 2013, the articles drew a variable but an increasing audience, with a low point of about 2.2 million per month rising to 3.0 million just before disclosures of the NSA’s Internet spying programs. Views of the sensitive pages rapidly fell back to 2.2 million a month in the next two months and later dipped under 2.0 million before stabilizing below 2.5 million 14 months later, Penney found.
Here’s a chart from page 37 of the paper dramatically illustrating the decline:
More details from Abhimanyu Ghoshal of The Next Web:
In his paper, ‘Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use’, Penney looked at monthly views on Wikipedia pages for 48 topics that the US Department of Homeland Security said it tracks on social media, including ‘Al Qaeda’, ‘terror’, ‘weapons grade’, ‘Abu Sayyaf’, ‘Iran’, ‘extremism’, ‘Nigeria’ and jihad.
He noted that in the 16 months prior to Snowden’s first big reveal, the articles drew between 2.2 million views per month rising to 3 million. After Snowden went public, those figures fell below 2 million before stabilizing at just under 2.5 million 14 months later.
Penney’s paper highlights the ‘chilling effect’ of the government’s snooping programs, which refers to the discouragement of the legitimate exercise of legal rights by the threat of legal sanction – in this case, to seek information and learn about what’s going on around the world.
And the money quote from page 40 of the study itself:
Skepticism among courts, legal scholars, and empirical researchers has persisted about the nature, extent, and even existence of chilling effects due, in large part, to a lack of empirical substantiation. The results in this case study, however, provide empirical evidence consistent with chilling effects on the activities of Internet users due to government surveillance. And, to be clear, the activity here is not only legal—accessing information on Wikipedia—but arguably desirable for a healthy democratic society. It involves Internets users informing themselves about important topics subject to today’s widespread social, political, moral, and public policy debates. The large, statistically significant, and immediate drop in total views for the Wikipedia articles after June 2013 implies a clear and immediate chilling effect. Moreover, the broad and statistically significant shift in the overall trend in the data (e.g. the shift from the second results excluding outliers) suggests any chilling effects observed may be substantial and long-term, rather than weak, temporary, or ephemeral. This study also bolsters support for the existence of the chilling due to the data upon which it relies. It is among the first studies to demonstrate evidence of such a chilling effect using web traffic data (instead of survey responses or search), and the first to do so in relation both to the potential chilling effects on Wikipedia use, and, more broadly, how such government surveillance and other actions impact how people access and obtain information and knowledge online.
We leave the last word to Glenn Greenwald, writing at The Intercept:
The fear that causes self-censorship is well beyond the realm of theory. Ample evidence demonstrates that it’s real – and rational. A study from PEN America writers found that 1 in 6 writers had curbed their content out of fear of surveillance and showed that writers are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” Scholars in Europe have been accused of being terrorist supporters by virtue of possessing research materials on extremist groups, while British libraries refuse to house any material on the Taliban for fear of being prosecuted for material support for terrorism.
There are also numerous psychological studies demonstrating that people who believe they are being watched engage in behavior far more compliant, conformist and submissive than those who believe they are acting without monitoring. That same realization served centuries ago as the foundation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: that behaviors of large groups of people can be effectively controlled through architectural structures that make it possible for them to be watched at any given movement even though they can never know if they are, in fact, being monitored, thus forcing them to act as if they always are being watched. This same self-censorsing, chilling effect of the potential of being surveilled was also the crux of the tyranny about which Orwell warned in 1984:
There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
Well, not quite the last word. Undoubtedly, the net beneficiaries of the reluctance of the populace to look deeper into issues of terrorism serves the interests of a government with a vested interest in keeping secret many of its operations and deepest political motives. . .