A Wikipedia study of readership show that people largely abstain from reading certain articles about terror groups after the NSA mass surveillance revelations of 2013, in fear of being redflagged as potential troublemakers. This is an entirely new form of self-censorship, and the media reporting on it has failed to see and explore this new form of self-censorship that has developed in fear of being redflagged in a new technical landscape.
The study, as first reported by the Washington Post and reported/discussed on Reddit, highlight this as an issue of self-censorship harming freedom of speech, even right in the headline. That’s wrong. It’s something else.
The Intercept further highlights the story and explores how it suppresses freedoms of expression and thought. But that’s still not what’s being self-censored here. Instead, what we’re seeing is something entirely new.
The classic self-censorship is refraining from speaking out. When speaking out gets you in trouble, formally or informally, this interferes with freedoms of speech and expression. This form of self-censorship has existed since ancient times – there have always been taboo subjects where we need to tread carefully. Sometimes they are social, sometimes they are political. It’s like the old Soviet joke:
Three people are sitting in a cell at the KGB headquarters. The first man says, “I’m here because I criticized Karl Radek. And you?”. The second man says “I’m here because I spoke out in favor of Karl Radek”. The third man adds, “I’m Karl Radek.”
Speaking of the KGB, they created a second form of self-censorship. By placing agents provocateurs in the general population in the Soviet Union and its puppet states, where KGB agents would claim over vodka that this communism thing really sucked and promptly have anyone who agreed with the statement raided and arrested, they created a fear of allying with dissenters – the KGB created a fear of having the wrong friends. They created a self-censorship that attacked the freedom of association.
The FBI had yet a third form going when they started attacking libraries and demanded to know which books had been borrowed by whom, something the librarians fought back as a profession and created the “warrant canary”, now commonly used in IT. Had the FBI started redflagging people based on this, and the librarians not fought back, it may have created this third form.
But it’s not until now that this third form really surfaces. Imagine you’re holding a (physical) encyclopedia in your hand, and you’re afraid of reading certain articles, self-censoring your behavior to look away from them. If you were reading a book, that you were avoiding certain pages. If you were reading a newspaper, that you’re avoiding reading certain topics. This is what the Wikipedia study shows is happening. This is self-censorship of the freedom of information, and it’s something entirely new and destructive that the NSA has caused.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.