Privacy and Self-Censorship

It’s interesting when the domain of two classes overlaps simultaneously. The subject of privacy and self-censorship is one of those right now.

A boy held back by several hands
The current assignment in IUPUI’s S502, Acquisitions and Management of Knowledge and Information explores censorship. Neil Richards’ Intellectual Privacy addresses the need to allow one to read freely and avoid self-censorship. The privacy interests in Richards’ book explain that observation or surveillance of ones reading materials can have a chilling effect on what information a person reads and accesses. One harm of that is that it may prevent the development of informed citizens in a democracy.

502 addresses the issues of censorship in a couple of narrow contexts. One form of censorship prevents access to objectionable materials. The other is self-censorship. To short-circuit possible challenges to a resource, the librarian may not purchase materials in an act of self-censorship. The class resources emphasize the value of librarians to pushing back against censorship attempts. There readings also mention self-censorship by authors who change their texts to improve a work’s palatability.

My observation is that the issue of censorship is broader than what 502 discusses. The self-censorship by authors is accurate. Publishers, content and copy editors, translators as well as authors can all implement self-censorship. Anyone in the food chain between the originator of an idea and the consumer is a vector for self-censorship.

Countries with authoritarian governments don’t try to disguise their censorship. They also use it to demand self-censorship. Post-publication censorship can apply pressure for publishers and news sources to self-censor. In the United States, this form of self-censorship is discreet. For example, authors don’t have to show that they removed profanity or didn’t write the article because of any controversies.

The class notes discussed self-censorship by librarians and booksellers. The issue of self-censorship from Intellectual Privacy discussed wasn’t as important to 502.

When an agency might monitor what a reader buys, rents or borrows, it isn’t necessary for there to be explicit restrictions. One might avoid owning a paper copy of with Fifty Shades of Grey that Richards explains in the chapter “Reading” that starts on p. 123. Censor’s attacks may inhibit readers to borrow books that they had attacked. One may not go to a newspaper web site published from Damascus, Tehran or by the Palestinians.

Richards points out a paradox. Ones reading material may seem private, for example by buying Fifty Shades of Grey as an e-book. However, eBook vendors have records of what you purchase, compromising the privacy and anonymity. The vendors protect that information out of economic self-interest, not the privacy needs of users. For example, in Ashcroft vs. ACLU, Google refused to release user search data with the justification that that release would reveal trade secrets. They did not advocate that the privacy of users was also important, just that the goodwill of users requires confidentiality.

An architectural diagram of the Panopticon prison
The Panopticon
The interaction between privacy and self-censorship comes from how one behaves when observed. The idea of the Panopticon prison invented by Jeremy Bentham is a metaphor in other venues. In the Panopticon, prisoners knew they could be watched at any time. They also did not know when they were not being watched. The risk of discovery forced the prisoners to act according to prison rules at all times. Similarly, awareness of possible access to internet history can lead to one to limit ones activities.

News reports mention internet access as incriminating in some criminal cases. The criminal complaint against the terror suspect Akram Musleh from Indiana included information about his search history [1]. However, that document contains much other incriminating information. His reading habits were secondary to other parts of the investigation. Other news reports sometimes mention search histories of narcotics suspects during the processing of their case.

This topic reveals the balancing needed to protect individual privacy. On one hand, individuals do not wish to be discovered searching for sensitive matters, but on the other, protecting that information can hide criminal activities and impede their prosecution. A group working to replace an oppressive government is criminal from within the country. However, observers from outside the country may encourage and try to protect their work.
The delineation of where public interests override individual needs is different in different points in history and varied political structures.

My inclination is to side toward allowing individual privacy to prevail. In only a limited set of circumstances is a history list relevant to building and prosecuting a criminal case. For example, all of a pedophile’s web activities would be directly relevant to the case. But, generally, reading or search records is supplementary information and restricting the use of the reading history will not derail a criminal investigation.

On the other hand, taking the use of online records even further, I can imagine a world where the search histories of government officials is just as relevant for public interest as their email records. For example, the web pages that the governor visits might contain nuggets of information that is revealing to his or her evaluation as a worthy candidate for re-election. In litigation related to patents, industrial espionage or trade secret disclosure, search and browser records may also be relevant to the case. The activity of the staff of a social media site might reveal that their service stole a feature from a minor player in the Web 2.0 biosphere.

Perhaps these last ideas seem alien only because people haven’t evaluated their potential. The problem is definitely not from any technical considerations. The use of these records could have a chilling effect on anyone in a position of authority’s effectiveness. As Richard’s emphasis, intellectual privacy in areas like this is valuable regardless of the technological possibilities.

Original image: Censo****p. By NICHXAV. [Image license]
Original image: Panopticon. By 张 磊 [Image license]