A “chilling effects” study published Tuesday in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal concludes that Internet users became less likely to browse Wikipedia for privacy-sensitive articles after the scope of the government’s online surveillance was revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Jonathon Penney, a PhD candidate at Oxford, looked at statistics for 48 separate Wikipedia articles pertaining to terrorism-related topics, including “car bomb,” “jihad” and “Taliban,” and compared traffic patterns from before and after the NSA’s PRISM program and other digital eavesdropping endeavors were revealed in June 2013 by Mr. Snowden, a former intelligence contractor.
The report concludes that traffic to Wikipedia pages for terror-related entries dropped by nearly 30 percent after those disclosures exposed the extent of the NSA’s surveillance operations — for the first time providing empirical evidence of the regulatory “chilling effects” on Wikipedia users associated with online government surveillance, according to its author.
“The article finds not only a statistically significant immediate decline in traffic for these Wikipedia articles after June 2013, but also a change in the overall secular trend in the view count traffic, suggesting not only immediate but also long-term chilling effects resulting from the NSA/PRISM online surveillance revelations,” Mr. Penney wrote. “These, and other results from the case study, not only offer compelling evidence for chilling effects associated with online surveillance, but also offer important insights about how we should understand such chilling effects and their scope, including how they interact with other dramatic or significant events (like war and conflict) and their broader implications for privacy, U.S. constitutional litigation and the health of democratic society.”
“The results of this case study suggest that the harm produced by chilling effects is not a ‘stretch of the imagination’ at all. The June 2013 surveillance revelations, extensively covered by media, appear to have had a salient and observable chilling effect on Wikipedia users accessing certain Wikipedia articles. Additionally, this case study provides a more general empirical foundation for companies, organizations and other institutions whose users may have been “chilled” by government surveillance to assert constitutional harms,” he added.
Wikipedia was chosen, Mr. Penney said, because the online encyclopedia “functions as an important public tool to complement the democratic process in promoting collective understanding, decision-making, and deliberation.”
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2015 challenging the constitutionality of NSA’s surveillance operations as exposed by Mr. Snowden’s leaks. At the time, Mr. Wales said the suit was necessary because “pervasive surveillance” caused “a chilling effect” that stifled the “freedom of expression” and “free exchange” of his platform, and the more than 30 million articles hosted in over 200 languages.
Mr. Snowden, 32, was charged with espionage after disclosing classified details concerning NSA operations, including PRISM — a surveillance program that was revealed to give the agency access to data from some of the world’s largest Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, by evoking Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Attorneys in Norway last week said they’ve filed a petition in Oslo City Court in hopes of having a judge say Mr. Snowden can attend a ceremony there in November without fear of extradition when he’s slated to be honored the Ossietzky Prize for revealing “questionable, extensive global surveillance” through the NSA disclosures.
• Andrew Blake can be reached at email@example.com.
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