Creating Chilling Effects On Speech Is A Feature, Not A Bug, Of The Surveillance State

from the shut-up-you-people,-we're-protecting-you dept

We’ve discussed a few times how the pervasive surveillance efforts of the NSA and others have tremendous chilling effects on how people communicate and how they act. We’ve discussed how this is a “cost” to the program that not many, especially those who are backing these programs, seem interested in measuring or even thinking about. Of course, implicit in our assumption is that these “costs” are things that are negatives of the program. Others would point out that for those in power, that’s not so much a cost as a benefit. It’s not a bug or an unintended consequence, but a feature. Chilling speech and clamping down on communications? Why that’s a good thing for those in power.

Josh Levy, from Free Press, has a great guest post over at Boing Boing where he discusses how the NSA’s surveillance regime is a huge attack on free speech, and how this is both inevitable, and for some, the intent of the program:

The chilling of free speech isn’t just a consequence of surveillance. It’s also a motive. We adopt the art of self-censorship, closing down blogs, watching what we say on Facebook, forgoing “private” email for fear that any errant word may come back to haunt us in one, five or fifteen 15 years. “The mind’s tendency to still feel observed when alone… can be inhibiting,” writes Janna Malamud Smith. Indeed.

Peggy Noonan, describing a conversation with longtime civil liberties advocate Nat Hentoff, writes that “the inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.”

Hentoff stressed that privacy invasions of this magnitude are “attempts to try to change who we are as Americans.” In fact, they are attempts to define who we are as human beings.

Meanwhile, over at the Atlantic, Bruce Schneier has a post discussing the detainment of David Miranda, where he comes to similar conclusions, that these authoritarian police states clearly have no practical benefit, except to enable a powerful government to show off its power to invade your lives:

This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.

Of course, Schneier sees some upside to this in the long run — which is that such blatantly ridiculous activity seems to only embolden others to push back on this trampling of our rights. Hopefully, that pushback works, because the alternative is horrifying to those who believe in a free and open society.

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Comments on “Creating Chilling Effects On Speech Is A Feature, Not A Bug, Of The Surveillance State”

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anonymouse says:


The lack of emotional restraint int he government’s actions is what is most troubling out of everything that’s happened. The one thing that can’t be true is that the government takes its powers and starts acting like the agency of a small group of individuals who are thin skinned, revenge driven and you know, despotic. That’s exactly what can’t be permitted to occur under any circumstances because THAT is the road down which the popular dissolution of the legitimacy of these agencies lies.

It’s bad enough they’ve lied- for whatever reason and worse that it was their go-to impulse. The reason that’s bad is because of what it implies- they’re not prepared for this kind of leak / revelation and there’s no effective plan in place and as a consequence THAT mere individuals- rather than well thought out policies- are what is calling the shots and those individuals are mad.

This is what appears to be going on. Maybe it’s too much to hope for that any agency or group of individuals can be counted on to act with dispassionate reason, preferably codified beforehand, and just do what needs to be done rather than what they feel like doing.

It’s not confidence inspiring, is it? This and a lot of other revelations imply a lack of institutional professionalism. You expect this kind of thing at , say a university or a corporation, but the intelligence community gets held to much higher standards. Perhaps that’s just a fantasy. Perhaps human organizations are fundamentally incapable of sustaining a high level of internal integrity and no matter how we arrange ourselves, the same end will result. It’s a depressing thought.

bigpicture says:

Re: Troubling

It’s time to take back The Constitution, after all it belongs to the people and NOT the government, so why would you expect the Government to uphold it. Does it not start with “We The People”?

It is in the nature of Governments to put SELF INTERESTS over the interests of the people. To degenerate into Fascists States unless there is some restraint. It is a fact that if Governments are allowed to keep secrets there is usually some SELF SERVING reason for that, both for individuals, corporations, and governments.

They have to do a HARD SELL to the populace that there are good Life Affirming reasons for keeping secrets and there never is. Only the self serving concealing of corruption, criminals rarely confess to what they have done, because they would be held accountable.

Obama has made some statements about the “transparency of government” but it is only mouthing platitudes, nothing more. We now need watchdogs to watch the governments, and any anti-Constitution crap from any elected official and they should be fired, replaced.

cffrost says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Aug 23rd, 2013 @ 6:58pm

“Where’s my like button?”

Yeah, why no convenient button that allows me to assist with the compilation of my personalized corporate/federal dossier?

Converting to a fascist surveillance/police-state can be tedious, thankless work — especially if only the most patriotic authoritarians among us are working on the initial — we’ve all got to pitch in, “Like” it or else.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Ends and means

“Of course, Schneier sees some upside to this in the long run — which is that such blatantly ridiculous activity seems to only embolden others to push back on this trampling of our rights. Hopefully, that pushback works, because the alternative is horrifying to those who believe in a free and open society.”

Those pushing for these egregious violations of our rights don’t want us to stand up against them, since if we REALLY knew what they were up to, we’d have them hanging from the highest tree. These are the bankers, politicians, and big business tycoons. Unfortunately, the “security” services are only their lap dogs… and bark/bite on command.

Richard (profile) says:

Jefferson to Madison on Shay's Rebellion

Jefferson: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Comment: Occasional, even violent, social insurgence effectively stirs the pot of politic awareness.

Jefferson: “Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them.”

Comment: Even when the gov’t suppresses acts of resistance up to and including full insurrection, those issues that led to the rebellion are disclosed and reveal how the gov’t is abusing its power as respects at least some members of society, and a goodly gov’t ought to attend to the repair of its excesses.

Jefferson: “An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much.”

Comment: The gov’t ought to turn a relatively blind eye to the criminality of rebellious misbehaviors in exchange for the valuable identification of needed reforms that were disclosed.

We can but hope that death is truly the final slumber so as not to be required to imagine how tortured a spirit must be that of Jefferson.

bigpicture says:

Re: Jefferson to Madison on Shay's Rebellion

What did Jefferson have to say about secrecy? What did he have to say about this specific dilemma or paradox? There is need of national secrets especially as it relates to National Security, and more so if at war. But then WHO decides what information relates to actual National Security interests, and what information is classified as secret just because the government does not want the public to know.

Then the classic catch 22, we can’t tell you why that is a secret because that is a secret. The party determining “what is a secret of national security interest” should not be the government or any government agency, but some completely independent body. Otherwise governments and their agencies use this secrecy requirement as a broad brush tool to hide their own corruption.

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Jefferson to Madison on Shay's Rebellion

Jefferson: “An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much.”

Comment: The gov’t ought to turn a relatively blind eye to the criminality of rebellious misbehaviors in exchange for the valuable identification of needed reforms that were disclosed.

So does that mean that Jefferson was warning people about the Streisand effect?

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m about to give up trying to change the spy state. Yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I’ve stepped back and took a look at the majority of humanity.

It all comes down to the majority of humanity does not care about anything, except what’s going on inside their own little ‘bubble’ of their immediate existence.

The majority of humanity can not see past the tip of their own nose. They cannot see distant events bearing down on them, much less fathom how such events will effect their existence in the future.

The vast majority of humanity does not react to something, until it smacks them in the face at point blank range, and they’re left with a bloody nose. Only then do they react to the situation, and by then it’s almost always too late to react or change anything. By then, change will be a slow and painful process, if possible at all.

So as you see, I’ve given up on the human race, because majority rules (rightfully so), and the majority of humanity lacks the insight, knowledge, wisdom and foresight about the world and events surrounding them.

I’m just going to let the majority do whatever they want. They don’t seem interested in changing, and I’m tired of trying to shine enlightenment on them.

Just sit back and go with the flow as much as possible. Kind of like a Chinese dissident, who’s just graduated from a ‘re-education’ camp.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

it has EVER been thus:

a SMALL minority of malcontents has to stir the pot, rake the muck, be the loudmouths and cry ‘Justice!’ in the face of fascism, dragging the authoritarians, pantywaists, and clueless along with them…

it was only a strong-willed and righteous minority who forced the issues and caused us to split from england; it will be the same when we reclaim OUR gummint…

the revolution will not be voted into being, it will be forced into being…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

While I certainly do not support all of what has been revealed about USG intrusion into our lives (I await revelations concerning other groups, both government (state and federal) and private), it does seem to me that the current “chilling” is arising only because the cat is out of the bag. As is often said, “ignorance is bliss”.

Certainly what has been disclosed is troubling, to say the least. Yet, I have to wonder if it has sunk in with most persons just how much private information that can easily be abused they willingly, sometimes even enthusiastically, turn over to third parties over whom they have absolutely zero control.

Anonymous Coward says:

With some readings, one can easily realize that this has been a feature of all separate powers, from as far back as we can go up to here and now and pretty much anywhere on the planet. The interesting thing is the belief that somehow, “modern” separate powers would be more laid back, loose, tolerant or permissive as Machiavelli’s Italy for example was. It’s not.

horse with no name says:

It's not as easy as you think

The internet has turned into a massive land grab on what constitutes free speech, essentially everyone has access to an unlimited photocopy machine, and airplanes to anonymously drop their tracts down on the masses (as I am doing here now, before anyone tries to claim I am somehow not self-aware).

We make speech today that we would not have made two decades ago, not because we are better informed but rather because we can hide behind a great big wall of anonymous internet and not worry about getting our lights punched out or our asses sued into oblivion for expressing unpopular opinions.

At the same time, the US has become a country of whining minorities, each of which has tried to hijack the nations agenda with their narrow minded desires. Those desires often get fulfilled at the expense of everyone else.

It seems we have an entire generation that has forgotten that when you pull the blank hard to your side of the bed, someone else loses their covers.

Oh and… this comment will be held for moderation by the Techdirt staff. I expect it to get posted sometimes wednesday.

hobos says:

The chilling effects are both direct and indirect. The direct method is, naturally, the implied threat. The indirect method comes about as a result of the fact that surveillance is also theft. Writers are easily damaged by surveillance. Surveillance is an easy word, one that is much too easy and much too soft to really define what is happening. ?A writer can very effectively be silenced/censored by simple surveillance. ?The reason? Surveillance becomes, automatically and by definition, theft. ?Envision a situation where a writer’s work is “surveilled” (read, stolen). ?Those who have purloined the works of that writer are then in a position to mark the works as theirs (since many writers keep their works secret during its production). ?The takers of the writer’s work simply register it as theirs, using some governmental mechansim for copyright or a non-governmental third party escrow service. ?Later the original author is censored under some vague “copyright” takedown mechanism such as what is currently used frequently in the U.S. and elsewhere. ?In most cases, this can be done without so much as a notification to the *real* author. ?This is an ongoing, quickly accelerating concern. ?A number of very famous novelists have been bitten by this situation. They were popular enough for their complaints to be heard. Lesser knowns are simply never heard from.

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