Report: Government Spying Causing Self-Censorship, Privacy Fears Among US Writers

Benjamin Fearnow
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A majority of Americans say that the technological developments of the next 50 years will have a positive impact on society, with 59 percent holding an “optimistic” view of various future tech advances ranging from positive to downright pervasive. (credit: Patrick Lux/Getty Images)

A majority of Americans say that the technological developments of the next 50 years will have a positive impact on society, with 59 percent holding an “optimistic” view of various future tech advances ranging from positive to downright pervasive. (credit: Patrick Lux/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – In the wake of revelations about intrusive government surveillance, many American authors are worrying about the freedom of the press and some simply are avoiding controversial topics.

A new report from the PEN Center and the FDR Group entitled “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor” finds that 85 percent of surveyed writers are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and nearly three-quarters (73 percent) “have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.”

Sixteen percent of writers have avoided writing or speaking about certain topics due to threatening privacy concerns, and an additional 11 percent have seriously considered such avoidance.

Writers and producers in both literary and online publishing circles made comments that included statements such as, “I assume everything I do electronically is subject to monitoring” and “controversial topics subject my personal computer to increased surveillance.” The PEN Center tells CBS that many writers fear day-to-day tracking in their Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and other American-based company accounts that may have been compromised by NSA or government intervention.

Another responded, “I feel that increased government surveillance has had a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don’t think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent.”

Many expressed concerns that if the U.S. is conducting far-reaching surveillance then it would become a new “norm” for governments across the world to use stronger police and military surveillance tactics. Others reflected that today’s privacy threats are much greater than former President Richard Nixon and Cold War-era intrusion, especially because of advanced technology.

According to their website, PEN Center looks to both protect the rights and freedoms of writers around the world, while also promote literary culture and interest in the written word. Their survey of over 520 American writers asked for long-form responses to the information being revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and other government whistleblowers.

The survey looked at the harms caused by widespread surveillance, and the possibly “chilling effect” that could affect the amount and type of information written and reported.

Nearly a quarter of the writers surveyed (24 percent) reported deliberately avoiding certain topics in phone or email conversations, and an additional 9 percent have seriously considered such action. A small portion of respondents said they had even declined opportunities to meet with people deemed “security threats by the government” because of privacy fears.

The report notes several revelations from Snowden’s leaked documents which have shown “ever-greater infringements on privacy by the NSA.”

The report cites that the NSA “has broken into the main telecommunication companies, has built a system that can reach deep into U.S. Internet backbone and cover 75 percent of traffic in the country, including not only metadata but the content of online communications.”

– By Benjamin Fearnow

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