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.

Surveillance, libraries and digital inclusion


Librarians have a key role to playing in terms of digital inclusion and protecting intellectual privacy. [Image c/o Duca di Spinaci on Flickr – CC-BY-NC license]

Towards the end of last year, I was privileged to be invited to talk at CILIP’s Multimedia Information and Technology (MmIT) Group AGM about digital inclusion as a representative of the Radical Librarians Collective (see the presentation below – which includes a list of recommended reading!). The invitation was well timed in terms of coming up with a focus for my talk as I have spent the best part of 5 months working on a journal article for the Journal of Radical Librarianship on the digital divide (which, pending peer review, will hopefully be published in the early part of this year). Specifically, I’ve been interested in looking at digital inclusion from a slightly different angle, that of the divide in terms of state and corporate surveillance.

As followers of this blog will know, I’ve been talking about surveillance and the Snowden revelations for some time now. Concerned about the gathering of information about us, whilst the state seeks to limit the amount of information we obtain about them, I’ve mainly been focused on the impact this has in terms of our democratic processes. However, since the emergence of the Library Freedom Project (founded by the awesome Alison Macrina), I’ve been increasingly interested in the role that libraries and librarianship has to play in this area. It seems to me, that the disclosures have to expand the terms by which we define what the digital divide is. Whilst there has always been a focus on access, and on skills, there must be greater attention on what people actually do online and, furthermore, the extent to which individuals are able to act freely in terms of seeking information.

Being able to seek out information that offers alternatives to the status quo (indeed, not just “offers” but challenges) is vital in a democratic society. Without the ability to seek out and understand alternatives, it is hard to accept that our society can possibly be described as “democratic”. What is clear from Snowden’s disclosures is that the ability to seek out information and communicate with others whilst ensuring your intellectual privacy is increasingly difficult. Difficult unless you have the skills and knowledge with which to defend your intellectual privacy.

I tend to think that I am fairly skilled in terms of using the internet. I can seek out information quickly and efficiently, I can provide assistance for others, I am fairly innovative in the ways in which I use certain online services. What I lack, however, is the skills necessary to really ensure my intellectual privacy, to defend myself against state or corporate surveillance. I have some skills, I have some basic knowledge, but I don’t know how to protect myself fully. And yet I consider myself reasonably skilled. What about those that have difficulties in using the internet in a basic way? What about those that struggle to do the things that I take for granted? Aren’t they even more exposed to state and corporate surveillance? Isn’t their intellectual privacy even more under threat? Surveillance tends to affect the most disadvantaged to the greatest extent, is intellectual privacy something only for the privileged?

I don’t want to get into this even further here (wait for the longer version!), but I do think there are issues here about the nature of the digital divide and how we should view digital inclusion post-Snowden. There was a time when it was considered fanciful that librarians could even consider to provide the sort of skills that the state may see as a threat to the status quo. However, the efforts by the Library Freedom Project in the United States underlines that this is no longer the case. If librarians in the United States, the home of the NSA, can help people defend their intellectual privacy, why can’t we do the same in the United Kingdom? I’m not suggesting that we can collectively as a profession start setting up Tor nodes in libraries or teaching people how to use encryption technologies, but we need to have the debate about how we ensure the intellectual privacy of everyone in our society, not just the privileged few.

CILIP’s Ethical principles for library and information professionals states that we must have a:

“Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

If we are to defend and advance that access to information then we must, in my mind, do whatever we can to defend the intellectual privacy of everyone.

You can also download a PDF version of this presentation here [PDF – 6.29MB].

Recommended Reading

Coustick-Deal, R. (2015). Responding to “Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear”. Open Rights Group.
Gallagher, R. (2015). From Radio to Porn, British Spies Track Web Users’ Online Identities. The Intercept.
Murray, A. (2015). Finding Proportionality in Surveillance Laws. Paul Bernal’s Blog.
Richards, N. M., (2008). Intellectual Privacy. Texas Law Review, Vol. 87.
Shubber, K. (2013). A simple guide to GCHQ’s internet surveillance
programme Tempora. Wired.
@thegrugq. Short guide to better information security.
@thegrugq (2015). Operational Telegram.
Whitten, A. & Tygar, J.D. (1999). Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0.

Library Freedom Project. Privacy toolkit for librarians.
Let’s Encrypt.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society
Surveillance & Society (OA journal).
The Digital Divide in the post-Snowden era (a micro-blog curating interesting links and resources – by me!)

Surveillance, freedom, Tor and libraries

Surveillance inhibits intellectual freedom.

The internet has brought new threats to intellectual freedoms…what can librarians do? (Image c/o Amélien Bayle.

For some time now I’ve followed (and admired greatly) the work of Alison Macrina and the Library Freedom Project (LFP) in the United States. Teaching citizens how to protect themselves from surveillance (both state and corporate) seems to me to be a fundamental role for librarians in a digital information society. Indeed, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) internet manifesto clearly states:

“Library and information services…have a responsibility to…strive to ensure the privacy of their users, and that the resources and services that they use remain confidential.”

In a post-Snowden world where state and corporate surveillance has merged as the internet has expanded, the principles of protecting privacy and ensuring intellectual freedom are more vital than ever.

Alison’s work has been particularly inspiring from afar due to the inherent difficulties of being able to deliver anything equivalent in UK public libraries. Whilst conducting the kind of work she does in the US is not without its hurdles, I tend to feel that the prospect of even offering the kind of support she provides would be impossible with our library and professional structures. I find it hard to conceive of a local authority permitting any kind of service that teaches citizens how to protect themselves online. Whilst libraries themselves are presented as “neutral” (despite the reality), they are delivered and sustained by political entities. Not only are they sustained by political entities, they are sustained by political entities that are broadly supportive of both the need for surveillance in the traditional sense (ie state) but also, due to the infection of neoliberal dogma, accepting of corporate data collection (corporate surveillance). In fact, considering recent developments, it would appear they are rather keen on using libraries as a mechanism to increase susceptibility to corporate data collection.

The recent announcement of a partnership between BT and Barclays in public libraries demonstrates how far we are from being able to provide the kind of training that Alison can provide in the United States. Presented as a crucial weapon in the bid to close the digital divide, the government announced a pilot project whereby BT provide wifi in public libraries and Barclays, through their Digital Eagles scheme, provides “free technology advice”. Putting aside the very obvious concerns about private influence in a public service, it’s pretty clear that a scheme funded by Barclays will work in the interests of Barclays (and by extension, corporate interests in general). It goes without saying that the kind of training the Digital Eagles provides does nothing to protect the privacy of internet users. A flick through their various guides finds advocacy of Google and Yahoo! as “very reliable and easy to use” and the guide to online safety only provides the most basic of advice. If you want to learn about protecting yourself from corporate surveillance, surprise, surprise, a large bank is probably not going to offer a solution.

That’s how far away we are, in one of the most surveilled countries in the world, from being able to provide citizens with protection from state-corporate surveillance infrastructures. Rather than protecting people from such surveillance, we are partnering up with private companies who seek to benefit from the data collection opportunities the internet provides. We’re not so much protecting citizens from data collection, but encouraging greater data collection.

Of course, efforts by the LFP have not been without their own difficulties. Yesterday it emerged that the Department for Homeland Security contacted the police department in Lebanon, New Hampshire regarding Kilton Public Library becoming the first library in the country to become part of the anonymous Web surfing service Tor. Using the standard of trope that surveillance avoidance puts people in danger, the police applied pressure to ensure that the library pulled the plug on the project.

The ability to source and access information without restriction should be a core function of libraries. In a world of mass surveillance, a “chilling effect” inhibits our right to obtain information without fear. Tools such as Tor provide us with that freedom to seek out information without fear of state or corporate surveillance. This is a fundamental core concern of the librarianship profession, and it’s one that I think we have been slow (generally speaking) to address. Whether it be for fear of reprisals or lack of the requisite knowledge to provide this kind of support. The move by the Department for Homeland Security must be a concern for all of us, whether we reside in the US or not. If attempts to deliver projects that protect citizens from mass surveillance are shut down before they even get off the ground in the US, we can be assured that even attempting an equivalent in the UK would be impossible to get off the ground.

Ultimately, we are being pushed into a position that compromises the ethical underpinning of our profession. We know that seeking and obtaining information freely online is compromised due to a combination of state and corporate surveillance, and yet any attempt to protect our users to enable free and uninhibited access is shut down. So where do we go from here? Private tuition outside the confines of local government influence? Who knows. In the meantime, it’s vital to put pressure on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the local police department and assert that an attack on intellectual freedom in libraries should not be tolerated under any circumstances, not least on spurious grounds of security.

You can add your support here. Regardless of whether you are a US citizen or not, I’d urge you to sign. Intellectual freedom gets to the heart of our profession. When it is attacked, we are attacked.

Radical Librarians and creating a new LIS qualification…

Image taken on Newman Street, London (c/o man_with_beard on Flickr).

Yesterday I went to the monthly radical librarians gathering in London (held at LARC – follow @rlc_se!). This time around we were very fortunate that Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project (LFP) was in town and was keen to come along and join us to talk about her work. And I think I speak for everyone when I say we are jolly glad she did!

I’ve followed Alison for a little while now on Twitter and have always been really interested and excited by what she is doing. I have to admit, that I am way less careful in terms of the services I use online and how I use them than perhaps I should be. Certainly hearing Alison talk about the issues has heightened my awareness of the need to be more careful (or at least more aware) of the nature of the ‘free’ tools I take for granted. I don’t think I have the technical skills to take the kind of steps required to minimise my footprint, but I think awareness is important and I am certainly keen to learn more from her in how to take the necessary steps.

By a stroke of luck, Alison’s visit also coincided with the release of a report warning the government that (surprise surprise) the banning of Tor would be “technologically infeasible“. We’ve long known that meddling with internet access to do ‘good’ (in the eyes of the authorities at least) actually does a lot of harm. We see this with filtering, for example, where indiscriminate filtering prevents people from accessing resources that provide support and comfort to those in need. Needless to say, the same goes for Tor. Much of the talk about Tor is that it is used by those wishing to visit the most vile websites without being noticed. Of course, as one study recently pointed out, such “dark web sites” account for only 1.5% of all Tor traffic. The vast majority use Tor to visit entirely legitimate websites. In short, Tor provides no threat to society. Rather it frees individuals to access the internet without the fear of surveillance.

Anyway, Alison can talk about all these issues with far more expertise and knowledge than I can. So head to the Library Freedom Project or follow her on Twitter to find out more…we very much hope she will also come to the Birmingham radical librarian gathering in July…

There were a whole host of other issues discussed, but I won’t go into them all here (partly because we observe the Chatham House rule, partly because this post would become very unwieldy!). Rather I’ll just offer a brief summary of some of the key points of discussion…

There was, as you might expect, some discussion around the next national Radical Librarians gathering in Birmingham on 4th July. This will be the third such gathering that has been organised following the highly successful Bradford and London events. It’s taken quite a while to get it together, but seems like we are well on course to make it happen, which is great. I think one of the things we are all reminded of during these meetings is how important it is that they take place. There are very few places where these kinds of discussions take place, and they are so fundamental to our core ethics that it seems like even having these discussions and changed things somewhat. I certainly always come away from these meetings feeling like the foundations for an alternative are being built. The difficulty is in maintaining the momentum. This is particularly tricky given the cynicism that comes with exploring alternative paths. But I always come away from these gatherings enthused by the energy and positivity of others. Which is why we need more of them!

We also talked about the idea of an online chat akin to the uklibchat/info lit chat club things that are currently taking place. The idea is to pick one OA article each month, post up the details in advance and host a live Twitter chat about the article (with the blog post acting as a place for ongoing discussion or more extensive chat). This has been discussed now for some time without ever really making progress, but hopefully this will happen soon. Ideas of how and when to run it will be circulated to the RLC Jisc list in due course. If you are interested at all, please do voice your interest/comments etc in the comments field below.

Post-gathering, some of us also talked about the state of current LIS programmes. We particularly discussed the idea of creating our own LIS course…the idea of a MOOC was suggested, but there was no consensus on whether this would be a good thing or not. During the process of the discussion, I jotted down some ideas of what kind of things the ideal LIS programme would cover (this list is not exhaustive! It’s just a few initial ideas.)

Digital librarianship
Data protection/freedom of information/copyright
Communication strategies
Ethics – profession and research
History of profession.

A placement.I’d be really interested in hearing the thoughts of current students and the recently qualified about what they think should be included, as well as their thoughts on the above. I personally believe the history aspect is important as it can help to draw links back to our core purpose, which may be helpful in focusing on our professional ethics. I also think such a focus on history would help to reverse the depoliticisation of what is, at its heart, a political profession.

Anyway, I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this particular aspect of the discussion on Saturday, as well as comments regarding radical librarians in general and the 4th July conference in Birmingham.