How Surveillance Causes Writers to Self-Censor

A worldwide survey of writers affiliated with PEN shows a significant level of self-censoring. From the press release:

The report’s revelations, based on a survey of nearly 800 writers worldwide, are alarming. Concern about surveillance is now nearly as high among writers living in democracies (75%) as among those living in non-democracies (80%). The levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in democratic countries are approaching the levels reported by writers living in authoritarian or semi-democratic countries. And writers around the world think that mass surveillance has significantly damaged U.S. credibility as a global champion of free expression for the long term.

New York Times article. Hacker News thread. Slashdot thread.

Posted on January 12, 2015 at 6:10 AM25 Comments


Bob S. January 12, 2015 6:41 AM

Well, duh!

Police state oppression works.

The latest horrific outburst of crime and killing in France will no doubt lead to more intense interference with communication all over the world.

I would point out, the police state propaganda machine is gaining momentum as well. There is reason to believe they have infiltrated virtually all news and media services.

Another Kevin January 12, 2015 8:03 AM

@Bob S – No need to postulate that the propaganda machine has infiltrated the media outlets. “OMG, we’re all going to die!” sells. “If it bleeds, it leads.” The perception that we’re all at immediate risk is a side effect.

Once that’s happened, the propaganda work is largely done. Convince people that they’re in mortal danger, and they’ll flock to whoever is offering protection.

The hard propaganda task belongs to the other side: convince people that they’re in mortal danger from their own chosen protectors.

GreenSquirrel January 12, 2015 12:21 PM

Just to be clear, while I agree with the comments and general feeling, this survey is a bit too self-selected to be of real value.

PEN is a group of authors who feel there is too much state surveillance so a survey of their membership will always point this way.

CallMeLateForSupper January 12, 2015 5:04 PM

There have been a number of articles about this very thing. I have yet to read or even hear of a survey of ordinary citizens who self-censor in their daily lives, despite a high probability that “we are legion”. Self-censoring is yet another subject that deserves a national conversation, and it’s frustrating to me that even the idea hasn’t got traction.

Clive Robinson January 12, 2015 5:56 PM

@ CallMeLateForSupper,

I have yet to read or even hear of a survey of ordinary citizens who self-censor in their daily lives, despite a high probability that “we are legion”.

Well I for one do self censor these days.

Like a few others I used to put up some of my more interesting thoughts about ways to circumvent security by new attack methods,thus forewarn people of what to look for if they saw unusual activity.

Then these ideas started turning up in attack software from state level organisations. Interestingly with the likes of air-gap crossing, I only put up one half of the idea, ie the malware infiltration not the data exfiltration part, and examination of the attack software showed that the exfiltration part was very deficient compared to the infiltration. This asymmetry in the attack software as well as the almost direct copying of the ideas, sugests that they had simply read the ideas off of the blogs postings…

So I decided not to post any further attack ideas I’ve had. So yes self censorship, which at the end of the day the community looses from.

... January 12, 2015 10:43 PM

better censor myself about how it wasn’t no old girlfriend Reggie Love got caught with, it was his boss, because sexual blackmail plus death threats, that’s how they keep the spokesmodel in chief in line and not prosecuting torturers


John Campbell January 13, 2015 6:54 AM

Consider, also, that surveillance shut down new content for … thus silencing the ability to keep an eye on those abusing law.

CallMeLateForSupper January 13, 2015 10:49 AM

@John Campbell
A big thank-you for the timely reminder of PJ’s forced “retirement”. I was heart-sick and dismayed at the time. Can’t believe that I forgot so soon.

AlanS January 14, 2015 8:23 AM

@Nick P

Also check out the link at the bottom. The cartoon is based on a list created by someone called Daniel Wickham.

Nick P January 14, 2015 10:20 AM

@ AlanS

Yeah more of the same. Didn’t know blasphemy was illegal in Ireland. Take for granted some of the freedoms I have in this ailing democracy. I’d have to be more careful in some places.

CallMeLateForSupper January 14, 2015 1:46 PM

@Nick P
“I’d have to be more careful in some places.”

VERY careful. You might also consider – if you haven’t learned elsewhere – that the Saudi flogging of a blogger did not begin and end on the same day: the sentence, 1,000 lashes, will be delivered 20 lashes per week for 50 weeks.
And the blogger was fined the equivalent of ~USD260,000.
AND the blogger’s lawyer was separately charged and sentenced to 15 years.

Our “friends” would probably convict me of something if I were to say that Saudi justice is fked up, so I will not say that Saudi justice is fked up. With friends like them, who needs enemies?

AlanS January 14, 2015 8:29 PM

@Nick P

I think blasphemy is also technically illegal in Northern Ireland and Scotland and was still illegal in England and Wales until a few years ago. I don’t believe the law has been enforced for a very long time.

Sancho_P January 15, 2015 5:37 PM

@ Wael

Sorry, found your typo just by coincidence …
(searching for sancho at the last 100 clearly missed it)

I meant the post following yours, it would be a perfect example for necessary self censoring, isn’t it? 😉

Wael January 15, 2015 10:33 PM


Sorry, found your typo just by coincidence

No worries… Me and my typos!

I meant the post following yours, it would be a perfect example for necessary self censoring, isn’t it? 😉

@Benni is a lot of fun 😉

Wael January 15, 2015 11:22 PM


I’ve been having trouble with line feed formatting for sometime. A blank line is now almost always missing after the second blockquote onwards. An example is my previous post on this thread. I’ve been getting around that by inserting a &#60pre&#62 CR &#60/pre&#62 to make it look right. Getting a little tedious, am I doing something wrong?

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.