Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

US Writers self-censor due to surveillance

What are the ramifications of the widespread electronic surveillance undertaken by the United States’ National Security Agency, as revealed by Edward Snowden? How does knowing that your online activities (social media, email, search engines etc) could be monitored affect how you discuss and research sensitive topics? How does widespread surveillance affect how journalists and writers go about their work? If writers and journalists are more cautious in how they research and write, how does that in turn affect how we, as a society, debate sensitive topics?

In October 2013 Pen American Center conducted a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs influences writers’ thinking, research, and writing. The resulting report makes for a disturbing read, giving some concrete examples of how surveillance leads writers to be more cautious about what they talk about, how they research subjects, and what they publish.

The report can be read in full here (pdf format).

Some of the findings:

Why should writers worry? Well, there are plenty of cases of writers being stopped/questioned/refused entry into the United States because of their writing, and not just high-profile cases like those of Ian McEwan, and more recently Ilija Trojanow; amongst the personal stories given in the report, one writer details his experience:

“Selected’ for a special security search returning to the United States from Mexico twice last summer, I learned I was on a U.S. Government list. I was searched for ‘cocaine’ and explosives. I suspect … that I must have been put on the government list because of an essay I wrote … in which I describe finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad site, and ultimately express some sympathy for young men on the other side of the world who are tempted into jihad … one can see how [the poem] might be a comfort to jihadists”

The above might strike you as an extreme example – perhaps, you might think it perfectly reasonable to put a the writer of a poem sympathetic to Jihadists on some kind of watch list; but what of other areas divorced from the spectre of terrorism (ostensibly the reason for the NSA surveillance)? For example, what if writers and journalists found it in their self interest to avoid contentious topics like the Occupy movement? Some of the comments from writers to the survey:

“I am pretty free with political opinions online, but hesitate to write about liberal organizing, especially during Occupy.”

“I have dropped stories in the past and avoided research on the company telephone due to concerns over wiretapping or eavesdropping.”

“I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to avoid certain conversation topics in electronic emails out of concern that those communications may be surveilled.”

PEN has called on the United States government to take immediate steps to restore public confidence that private communications remain private and protected by:

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