PEN report reveals concerns about the impact of mass surveillance

By EDRi · January 14, 2015

On 5 January 2015, PEN American Center published a report “Global chilling: The impact of mass surveillance on international writers”. The report introduces the results of a survey of writers, to investigate how mass surveillance influences their thinking, research and writing, as well as their views of government surveillance by the US and its impact around the world. In total 772 writers from 50 countries completed the survey. PEN is a worldwide association of writers that promotes protect free expression and to defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked for their views.

The survey results confirm and expand upon the findings of PEN’s survey of US writers, conducted in 2013, that revealed overwhelming concerns about mass surveillance. The new report shows that the impact of mass surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA), other US government authorities and US allies is limiting freedom of expression around the world.

The survey used the classification by Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) conducting research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, defining the countries included as “free”, “partly free” or “not free”. Freedom House publishes an annual report assessing degree of political freedoms and civil liberties. According to the survey, more than a third of the writers in “free” countries said that they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or had seriously considered it, due to concerns about surveillance.

The report presents four key findings:

  1. Writers in democratic and non-democratic countries are equally worried about levels of government surveillance in their countries. The majority of writers around the world said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about levels of government surveillance in their countries, including 75% in countries classified as “free”, 84% in countries classified as “partly free”, and 80% in “not free” countries. Writers’ fear and uncertainty regarding surveillance is so widespread that several survey respondents expressed concern over submitting their responses to the survey.
  2. Writers around the world are engaging in self-censorship due to fear of surveillance. The respondents were asked whether they had engaged in different types of self-censorship in their written work, personal communications and online activity. Writers living in liberal democratic countries have begun to engage in self-censorship at levels approaching those seen in non-democratic countries, indicating that mass surveillance has undermined writers’ trust on democratic governments respecting their freedom of expression and right to privacy. Because of pervasive surveillance, writers are concerned that expressing certain views even privately or researching certain topics may lead to negative consequences. Self-censorship has a devastating impact on freedom of information: If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material, particularly controversial material, available to readers may be greatly impoverished.
  3. Mass surveillance programmes by the US government have damaged its reputation as a protector of free speech in the US. The report indicates that particularly in other “free” countries, writers do not believe freedom of expression is better protected in the US than in their countries. Even in countries classified as “partly free”, nearly one third of the writers think freedom of expression enjoys less protection in the US.
  4. Mass surveillance by the US government has damaged its reputation as a champion of freedom of expression around the world. Approximately two thirds of the respondents think US credibility “has been significantly damaged for the long term” by its surveillance programs.

Both President Obama’s Administration and those of his immediate predecessors have prioritised the promotion and defence of free expression and human rights worldwide as a key policy pillar. Current surveillance practices are undermining these commitments. On the basis of the findings of this survey, as well as of those of the October 2013 survey, PEN urges the US government to take immediate measures to reform its mass surveillance programs, to ensure that constitutional and international human rights to free expression, privacy, freedom of thought and freedom of information are fully protected.

In spring 2015, PEN will publish a full report including these and other survey findings from writers around the world.

Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers (05.01.2015)

PEN American Center, Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor (12.11.2013)

Freedom in the World 2014 Methodology