A new study points to a change in behavior among internet users since the NSA spying revelations. In it, the researchers say that U.S.-based search traffic fell 2.2% for terms perceived as likely to get one in trouble with the government. Internationally, there was a similar drop in terms that might be embarrassing to family or employers.
It doesn’t sound like much, but with the high volume of searches, the number is indeed quite large. (No wonder that tech companies are starting to push back against spying, at least in PR efforts. They see their numbers dropping more clearly than anyone, and that equates to lost profits.)
“It provides good empirical evidence that the surveillance revelations caused a substantial chilling effect relating to users’ willingness to enter search terms that raters considered would get you into trouble with the government,” say the authors.
The results surprised those doing the report, who say they expected no drop. The short report lists their methodologies and statistical confidence.
The compared lists of top Google search terms with a list of know DHS search terms, plus crowd sourced lists of potentially embarrassing terms. They are very clear on the limitations of doing their study but feel that this is an important first look at the problem. They also plan more research.
What is interesting is the list of words that have dropped. Should it concern us that people are afraid to search for things like abortion, acne, animal rights, body odor, or coming out? How about depression, cutting, divorce lawyer, fireworks, or gay rights?
Should people be limiting their access to information about guns, herpes, or Hitler? How about occupy, protest, or pregnant? Revolution, socialism, suicide, tampons, therapist, unions, autism, vaccine, viagra, warts, weed, weight loss, and wicca, among others, are on that list.
Good cases can be made for legitimate reasons (ie, not a terrorist) for searching for those terms. But the numbers suggest we’re being intimidated and made fearful of searching for certain words. (We’re probably also being intimidated into using different language, or none at all, on social networks and blogs, but that study has not been done, yet.).
Wikipedia, chilling effect: In a legal context, a chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction.
The report issues a warning in conclusion: “The primary implication is that such surveillance could act as a burden to the competitiveness of U. S. firms in the eyes of international users.”
And, I dare say, search for whatever you want or need using an ecrypted search engine like StartPage or DuckDuckGo. And exercise your right to free speech lest it slip away.