Freedom to Search and Click

Mass surveillance can threaten intellectual innovation and creativity online

Not only is privacy needed to give people full control of their information, but also to allow them to develop new ideas. This is another vital part of a true democracy and one which is needed to advance humanity forward.

Government surveillance may threaten the intellectual innovations and freedoms which have the potential to make valuable contributions to society. There are two reasons why. The first is that when users know that they are being watched by the government, they are more cautious and careful about what they search, read and send online.

This has been labelled as the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance, which essentially refers to how someone’s actions can change significantly when they know they are being watched compared with when they are not. This can discourage journalists, researchers or just curious internet users from visiting webpages or accessing information which they feel may trigger false alarms to the government of suspicious activity, resulting in more targeted surveillance on their activities or even threaten prosecution. This can have the harmful effect of stifling research on controversial topics and informing the public of the important happenings taking place in relation to those subjects. For a functioning democracy, allowing people to exert more information and opinion is often better for society than encouraging less of it. There are some numbers to suggest that this chilling effect has indeed taken place. Research by PEN America Centre, an organisation advocating free expression, found that 37% of writers it surveyed in 2013 in what they referred to as “free countries” avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic due to government surveillance. It also found that 42% of these writers also avoided being active on social media.

The second reason why government surveillance threatens intellectual innovations and freedoms is that it can stop new, and maybe even controversial ideas, from eventually flourishing into beneficial ones. Mass surveillance allows the government to obtain sensitive data about people which it may deem as a threat to its political agenda’s, of which they could use to silence or discredit those it deems as a danger. This was the case in the 1960s when the FBI conducted thorough surveillance programs to collect as much information as it could about Martin Luther King. The bureau tapped his phones, bugged hotel rooms, and did so for a few years, trying to find anything they could use against him, and foil his work on promoting civil rights for African-Americans in the US. At the time, he was considered a threat to public order, according to the FBI, since the ideas he promoted were apparently controversial and unsound. But eventually allowing his ideas to flourish has gradually led to them being widely accepted among most politicians and US citizens today. In some areas of the US, racism, discrimination and prejudice may still be a problem, but much less of a problem when compared to Martin Luther King’s time.

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