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Chilling Effects Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use

In an article published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, titled “Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use,” Citizen Lab Research Fellow Jon Penney analyzes the fall of traffic to Wikipedia articles about terror groups and their techniques.

Penney found that access to these sites dropped nearly 30 percent after knowledge of web monitoring by the U.S National Security Agency became widely available as a result of the Snowden leaks. Traffic was found to drop further still to topics deemed especially privacy-senstitive by survey respondents.

Article abstract:

This article discusses the results of the first empirical study providing evidence of regulatory “chilling effects” of Wikipedia users associated with online government surveillance. The study explores how traffic to Wikipedia articles on topics that raise privacy concerns for Wikipedia users decreased after the widespread publicity about NSA/PRISM surveillance revelations in June 2013. 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, 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. This study is among the first to demonstrate— using either Wikipedia data or web traffic data more generally— how government surveillance and similar actions impact online activities, including access to information and knowledge online.

Read media coverage by Reuters, The Hill, The Next Web, and The Interceptor the full journal article.

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Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy | University of Toronto