Self-censorship – coming to a laptop near you

30th May 2016 / Global

In our article “Britain Moves From Democracy to Authoritarian State in Pernicious Veil of Secrecy” written back in September we described how in little more than a decade the state has gone from an open society with mainly democratic principles to one that is starting to resemble an authoritarian state. 

This is demonstrated no better than by a sinister mass surveillance programme instigated, developed and kept secret by the state, only to be revealed by the leaks of a whistleblower years later.

As a concerned, conscientious or just inquisitive citizen you may quite rightly ask why is it happening and for whose benefit. But actually nowadays, you might not ask at all.

The word panopticon sounds sinister as well as actually being so. It describes a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. It appears that Bentham’s design is being adopted as a government playbook for future civil rights and liberties.

A study by the University of Oxford – Oxford Internet Institute; Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Harvard University – Berkman Center for Internet & Society; and Dalhousie University – Schulich School of Law demonstrated some interesting results on the modern day design being imposed upon by our ‘elected’ watchmen. The study provides evidence of the “chilling effects” of Wikipedia users associated with online government surveillance.

“Using an interdisciplinary research design, the study tests the hypothesis, based on chilling effects theory, that traffic to privacy-sensitive Wikipedia articles reduced after the mass surveillance revelations. 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. These, and other results from the case study, offer compelling evidence for chilling effects associated with online surveillance.”

The study, written by Jon Penney goes further in the summary by saying that “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. This study is among the first to demonstrate — using either Wikipedia data or web traffic data more generally — how government surveillance and similar actions may impact online activities, including access to information and knowledge online.”

In other words, like the panopticon, when we know we are being watched, in this case seeking out knowledge, attempting to understand why governments do what they do and trying to get answers on the difficult things that affect us, we are already starting to self-censor. In an attempt to avoid being suspicious, we are actively choosing not to visit particular websites out of fear.

Think about that for a moment. We are choosing not to visit a website out of fear of our own government.

The study deduces that “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’” This is a clear indication that people are self-censoring, that they are afraid to find out about the effects of government decisions that not only stifles free speech but the most basic principles of any democracy no matter how young or old it may be.

As if further evidence was necessary this from The GuardianA postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University had spotted him reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library.”

The unfortunate involved here was Mohammed Umar Farooq, who enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, who told the Guardian that he was questioned about homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida by an official of the university. Farooq also said he had been “looking over his shoulder” ever since, and so unsettled by the incident that he chose not to return to the course.  Farooq was worried he would end up on a Police watch list. After a three month investigation, Farroq was exonerated and an apology was made by the university.

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The same happened to another student who was arrested under the Terrorism Act and kept in custody for six days and eventually awarded £20,000 compensation by the police after three years of investigation. Rizwaan Sabir, 22, who was studying for a master’s at Nottingham University, was arrested after downloading a terrorist manual for his research on al Qaeda.

UK advocacy group Cage confirmed that they have received dozens and dozens of such cases just like that of Farooq and Sabir.

This is the result of the British government’s new anti-radicalisation policy – one that is constructing the architecture of societal paranoia, starting in academia. This is also confirmed by Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academics and lecturers at universities and colleges across the UK. Back in September last year she said that the government plans on radicalisation were “baffling and fostered mistrust between lecturers and students.”

Then we have the BBC who reported that the British Library has declined to store a large collection of Taliban-related documents because of concerns regarding terrorism laws. “The collection, related to the Afghan Taliban, includes official newspapers, maps and radio broadcasts. Academics have criticised the decision saying it would be a valuable resource to understand the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. The library said it feared it could be in breach of counter-terrorism laws. It said it had been legally advised not to make the material accessible.”

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an author and researcher who helped spearhead the project said  “There’s no recipes for making bombs or anything like that. These are documents that would help people understand history, whether it’s Afghans trying to learn about their recent past, or outsiders wanting to understand the movement.”

Linschten went further to say “there is a climate of fear among academics who study this kind of material because UK law is very loose.

America’s ‘Domestic Surveillance Directorate‘ – a website run by the NSA makes the worryingly Orwellian statement  “Your Data: If You Have Nothing to Hide, You Have Nothing to Fear” (literally, it does say that) that should make most of us even more suspicious of their intentions. Back in Britain, it’s more subtle. From GCHQ “We are very aware of the responsibility that comes with the nature of our work, and in addition to our legal accountability we also take the ethical considerations surrounding our mission seriously.” That didn’t stop them breaking laws domestically and internationally on an industrial scale. Once challenged, the government simply went ahead and changed the law – so it wasn’t being broken.

In the end, persecution of whistleblowers like Snowden, Assange and Manning gives out a huge message to the citizens of so-called modern democracies. So does the release of data from the Panama Papers, the Swiss Leaks, Lux Leaks and TTIP leaks.

Bentham’s ‘panopticon is a useful tool used by government’s all over the world, Britain and America included, to change the behaviour of the masses. It does so as Bentham designed, to instil despair and anxiety in order that those in power continue their reign of anarchy  across the world, be it a corporate takeover of sovereign nations such as TTIP, CETA and TTP or en-masse taxation crimes to name just a couple, whilst everyone else bows their heads, eyes to the floor for fear of being caught looking up.

Graham Vanbergen –


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