Tech & Rights

#MeAndMyRights: Darkness, My Old Friend: How Mass Surveillance Is Killing Public Debate

Research shows mass surveillance is causing a decline in free speech over the internet. Read the latest episode of our series to learn more about the 'spiral of silence'.

by Israel Butler

Researchers have been looking at how the public behave over the internet. They conclude that ever since Edward Snowden told everyone that our security services were tracking everything we do on the internet, the public has started to treat it as a place with no privacy. In other words, many of us are starting behave on the internet like people behave when they are in a public place being watched. This tendency of the public not to speak out in the face of surveillance is referred to as the ‘spiral of silence’. Here are a few examples.

A 2014 survey that included four European countries showed that most people in the UK (60%), Germany (65%), Spain (66%) and France (76%) believe that the internet is not a safe place to express their opinions – in part because of government surveillance, and in part because of monitoring by businesses.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

Twenty-five per cent of respondents to a survey in the USA who were aware of the government’s mass surveillance programmes said that they changed the way that they use technology to communicate, for example by no longer discussing their private life online, using search engines to look for information on certain topics or making jokes that could be taken out of context.

Another piece of research looks at how people have changed the way they use the internet by monitoring the number of visits to certain Wikipedia pages. The research looked at almost 50 Wikipedia pages that covered topics that the media reported were being tracked by the USA's National Security Agency as part of their mass surveillance programme. Researchers found that after the Snowden revelations there was a long-term drop of 30% in the number of visits to these pages.

Another researcher set up experiments to see how willing individuals are to express their political opinions online now that they are aware of mass surveillance programmes. This study found that members of the general public were likely to censor themselves online (in this case when using Facebook) and refrain from expressing political views that are not in conformity with dominant public opinion or accepted rules.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

A more recent study looked at the willingness of individuals to speak, write, search for and share information about certain (legally permissible) topics and activities online. Sixty-two per cent of people said they would be less likely to speak or write about certain topics because of government surveillance. Seventy-eight per cent agreed government surveillance would make them more careful about what they discuss online. Seventy-eight per cent agreed that government surveillance would make them more careful about what they search for online. Sixty per cent said that they would be less likely to share content that they had created online because of government surveillance.

The evidence is pretty clear: mass surveillance is killing the kind of research and discussion over the internet that is vital for democracy to function.

If you’d like more in-depth information or would like to follow up on the evidence and studies we refer to, you can take a look at our full report ‘Security through Human Rights’ here.

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