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PEN American Center survey finds writers around the world engaging in self-censorship over surveillance worries

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In his 2014 book No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who brought to light Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of the U.S. National Security Agency’s post-9/11 spying on its own citizens, points out that it doesn’t matter whether the government actively pursues people it finds to be engaging in controversial or unpatriotic conversations or writing. The mere fact that people know the government is watching them, Greenwald contends, is sure to have a chilling effect on their actions and activities.

A new survey of international writers, editors, and journalists indicates that this effect is not limited to citizens of the continental U.S.

According to the survey, conducted by the PEN American Center and titled Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, fully 84 per cent of respondents in so-called “Five Eyes” countries (those that actively share surveillance information with the U.S., including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) claim to be very worried or somewhat worried about current levels of government surveillance in their own countries. Moreover, the survey shows that respondents from Five Eyes countries have self-censored or refrained from participating in discussions of certain topics out of fear of institutional surveillance. Forty per cent admitted to having or having seriously considered not writing or speaking on a particular topic, while 43 per cent have or have seriously considered curtailing activity on social media, and 33 per cent have or have seriously considered avoiding certain topics in phone conversations or email.

The PEN survey, which was administered by the non-partisan New York research firm the FDR Group, garnered 772 responses from writers in 50 countries. (Fifty-three respondents identified themselves as living in Canada.) Conducted between Aug. 28 and Oct. 15, 2014, the survey shows that “[l]evels 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.”

The New York Times quotes writer Hari Kunzru as saying, “The feeling that the internet is looking over your shoulder is now universal,” a sentiment the PEN survey underscores. Notwithstanding measures to ensure the anonymity of respondents – including aggregate reporting and allowing respondents to opt out of questions that may divulge personally identifying information – participants admitted reluctance to provide certain responses on the questionnaire. “Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger – if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow,” writes one respondent.

The furor that followed in the immediate wake of the Snowden revelations was galvanizing, but the PEN survey indicates that bringing the NSA’s surveillance program out of the shadows may have backfired. Knowledge of the degree to which government institutions in supposedly democratic societies are able to track the activities of citizens has apparently resulted in an unwillingness to confront topics that may be controversial or cause blowback for authors and journalists. PEN concludes that “U.S. mass surveillance has badly damaged freedom of expression around the world,” including in liberal democracies where “levels of self-censorship … match, or even exceed, the levels reported by U.S. writers.”

A complete version of PEN’s report is due for release later this spring.