Free speech, librarianship and the chilling effect of surveillance

chilling effect

Image c/o glassghost on Flickr.

Free speech has become the hot topic de jour amongst the chattering classes. Barely a day goes by without some new threat to free speech emerging. Indeed, it seems to have become somewhat of a middle class obsession, which is perhaps unsurprising given that many of the so-called threats to free speech are actually threats to middle class privilege and effectively seek to strike a balance between those with privilege and those without (hello safe spaces). So threatened have the privileged become, the adolescent middle class journal of choice (hello Spiked!), has even launched a “campaign for free speech in higher education” – a campaign that peculiarly obsesses with one particular aspect of free speech, but spending little time on the broader issue.

To a certain extent (not entirely, I’m not for one moment suggesting most don’t engage in discussions around this topic), librarians and the profession in general have tended to neglect the debate on intellectual freedoms, preferring instead to pontificate on areas that are traditionally private sector obsessions. It’s curious as to why this is the case. After all, our profession is steeped in the principles of intellectual freedom. We believe people should read and access what they want, we believe that censorship is a bad thing, we believe that access to information should be equal to all. Yet despite this, whilst we live in an environment where intellectual freedoms are apparently up for discussion, there is little space occupied by a profession that should be seeking to defend such freedoms. There is certainly plenty for us to get worked up about…

Recent developments have highlighted the extent to which our non-engagement (our “neutrality”?) is having a detrimental effect on public discourse.  According to the principles outlined by CILIP, we are minded to ensure “commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination” and “respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users”.  Yet are either of these possible when mass surveillance exists? Does mass surveillance not pose a threat to our ethical principles and, by extension, our existence? Without our ethical principles, surely we are no better than the volunteers we claim deliver an inferior library service?

The threat to our ethical principles particularly manifests itself via the “chilling effect” of surveillance strategies – that is, that knowledge of surveillance activity impedes our intellectual freedom, resulting in modifying our communications and information seeking for fear of being watched and, ultimately, punished (regardless of whether the punishment is based on an incorrect interpretation of activity). This effect has long been debated and argued, and to an extent the jury is still out on the extent to which it exists. However, it does pose a particular threat to us as professionals, one that undermines our ethical principles and, therefore, calls into question our existence. (Surely ethical principles are what divide us from volunteers providing library services?)

This notion of a “chilling effect” is not exactly a radical one. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice concluded that:

“In a democratic society privacy of communication is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively. Fear or suspicion that one’s speech is being monitored by a stranger, even without the reality of such activity, can have a seriously inhibiting effect upon the willingness to voice critical and constructive ideas.”

This was, of course, long before the kind of mass surveillance we are familiar with now had emerged. This impeding of the ability to voice critical and constructive ideas is one element of the impact of the “chilling effect”. But to be able to voice critical and constructive ideas you must be able to seek out ideas that challenge the status quo, that provoke critical reflection on the democratic process.

More recently, further research has suggested that there is a very real “chilling effect” following mainstream awareness of surveillance strategies conducted by the NSA and others. A recent study by Oxford’s John Penney [SSRN link, sorry!], for example, found a notable decrease in visits to contentious topics on Wikipedia following the Snowden disclosures. Penney found that there had been a

“20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’”

This follows a 2015 paper which found that [sorry, SSRN again]:

“…users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U.S. government”

Furthermore, the US Department of Commerce underlined the extent to which a “lack of trust” in internet privacy and security may deter online activity. Following a survey asked of 41,000 households with more than one internet user, it was clear that many felt that government surveillance had an impact on their expression of ideas online. According to their analysis:

“The apparent fallout from a lack of trust in the privacy and security of the Internet also extends beyond commerce. For example, 29 percent of households concerned about government data collection said they did not express controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or security concerns, compared with 16 percent of other online households.”

They conclude that:

“…it is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet and the resulting chilling effects. In addition to being a problem of great concern to many Americans, privacy and security issues may reduce economic activity and hamper the free exchange of ideas online.”

These sentiments are echoed by Penney who argues that:

“If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

But what has this got to do with librarianship? Returning to those CILIP ethical principles, it’s clear that we have an obligation to ensure equal access to “information, ideas and works of the imagination”. Furthermore, it is clear that in an environment of mass surveillance, where the populace are aware that their online activities are observed and processed, individuals cannot exercise this freedom to access information because the “chilling effects” impedes them. The consequence of this is not only a reluctance to seek out critical ideas, but also a reluctance to communicate them. You cannot, ultimately, have free speech when you exist in conditions of mass surveillance. The conditions brought about by this “chilling effect” do not allow for it, unless you have the privilege to possess knowledge and skills about the techniques you can use to protect your information seeking habits and communications of course.

For me, this is where we need to be much stronger…because our ethical principles demand that we are much stronger. We should not, as a profession, accept the Investigatory Powers Bill and the threat it poses to us as professionals, undermining a key ethical principle to which we supposedly adhere. Equally, we should do more to protect our communities. Here the United States is well ahead of us, thanks to organisations such as the Library Freedom Project, as well as some efforts by the ALA and the Electronic Frontier Federation (which is non-librarian, but has played a key role in advancing the cause of intellectual privacy). Whilst moves have been apparent in the UK (see the recently announced Crypto Party in Newcastle), we have been far too slow to defend these core ethical principles. Perhaps this is down to a historic indifference in the UK towards free speech (see our libel laws as an example for how little value we place upon it – another example of the extent to which liberal values are something that only the privileged can enjoy). The extent to which there is a “chilling effect” on intellectual activity is debatable but so long as it is, we need to be at the forefront of that debate – both in terms of discourse and action.