A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We have heard from many writers that when the NSA and GCHQ monitor the web and communications across the web they engage in censorship or the surveillance becomes a form of censorship because it chills the freedom of expression and creates. In a liberal democracy, this is a myth, a dangerous myth, because it masks the underlying power of public opinion. What silences us, if we are to be silenced, is not the state but four other actors: our neighbours, the public, our employer and, finally, the laws. While we find it convenient to blame the state, the one overt guardian who sets public limits to our behaviour in public and private, they are less effective than the other actors are in enforcing conformity. We blame the state because it is abstract and remote and by doing it we absolve ourselves from responsibility for our opinions and our actions.
The public is a better censor than the state.
Behind all of these actors is the public opinion that influences how each of these actors affects our willingness, as opposed to our ability, to speak publicly. If the public opinion frowns upon some opinions, for example common human decency restrains the more morally obtuse opinions, then people will usually hesitate from speaking about them publicly. They either fear the consequences, such as losing their job or their friends, or they fear being seen as inhuman in their opinions. Even if common human decency does not eliminate evil, it does contain it enough so that society can offer a morally safe space for people to live and flourish free from fear of overt physical violence and aggression. In the public sphere, as opposed to the private, we find that surveillance, in a liberal democracy, is almost unnecessary regarding speech. When people suffered abuse online they have published and broadcast the abuse to draw attention to it. In response, the decent public opinion has rightly condemned it and in many cases forced the government, as an expression of the common decent opinion, to act. In other cases, they have acted directly on the offender’s employer to exert pressure on them to withdraw their statements of suffer consequences from expressing them. The public, not the state, had them under surveillance and restrained the other speakers. The public, rather than the state’s covert or overt surveillance, identified the offensive opinions and “censored” them.
Surveillance and control: not always the responsibility of the state.
If we consider surveillance as a substitute for social control or an extension of the rule of law, we realize that it only reflects what the community expects regarding the standard of behaviour within its borders. I purposefully ignore external, or foreign, intelligence surveillance, covert or overt, because it is outside the state’s political domain. By that I mean, what a state does externally to defend itself is not the same as what it must do domestically to retain its legitimacy. To confuse or conflate the two is to embark on a utopian or dystopian journey to a world state where there is no foreign policy only domestic policy. Even in the digital domain, the two realms only overlap to the extent the digital domain has no borders. The author still has a physical presence and exists in a physical space that is subject to state authority. As the state polices the overlap between the digital and the physical, we realize that the NSA or GCHQ are too remote from our daily activity inside the state to be considered as a form of social or community control. Instead, their profile is in an inverse relationship to their influence. We need to look closer to our daily lives to understand where social or community control or influence occurs on our public opinions. The intelligence agencies in liberal democracies are not the source of censorship; other actors have that role without the aid of the state.
Public or private, if it is written down it can be read.
I would stress that we need to distinguish between our private opinions and our public opinions. Private opinions are those opinions that are limited to the spoken word in a private setting, such as the home or an association like a club or church, and it excludes places like work. Public opinions are what we say or write in public places like work, the street, in court, or on a social media platform. The focus has to be on our public opinions published or broadcast on a public media, physically, such as speaker’s corner, or, digitally, such as a social media platform. Neither of these “places” can be considered private no matter how exclusive because they are intended to be public. The “speech” is recorded and held by a publicly accountable organisation and are published to be shared and read by others beyond our control. Even though the spoken word allows a plausible deniability on its meaning, its intent, and its context, which is not available to the same extent with the written word, it is still public. To put it differently, but directly, you cannot write for different audiences with the same text as you can speak to different audiences with the same speech. In the latter, it is easier to display your intent differently to different audiences.
What is the orthodoxy that censorship defends?
We cannot claim that surveillance from our home, our work, or the public “censor” or constrain our speech until we can explain what orthodoxy they enforce. Censorship only exists to the extent that it is used to enforce or defend a known orthodoxy. Those who claim that surveillance has chilling effect on public speech fail to articulate the orthodoxy or the common standard of opinion that is being defended by such surveillance. If the opinion that might be chilled is in line with the opinion being defended by surveillance, then the speaker should not fear the surveillance. Even this assumes that the people who undertake the surveillance understand what is being said, find some threat or challenge in it, and then know its possible effect on the orthodox opinion. Leaving aside those secondary questions, we still return to the fundamental question: what is the orthodox opinion that is being defended or propagated by those who undertake surveillance? The theorists who speak against surveillance and its “chilling effect” seem to believe that the orthodoxy is automatically challenged by all speech and surveillance automatically creates or enforces conformity. Instead, what we find is that surveillance and the orthodoxy it defends is more concerned with public order issues and those that could lead to an attack or action against the public order, which is the state’s fundamental responsibility to its citizens. The state’s concern with the orthodoxy fits closely with what the legal system or the laws (an expression of the community) require.
You cannot advocate the abolition of the monarchy, but who cares?
To illustrate the point consider that in the UK it is illegal to argue or advocate for the abolition of the monarchy. Yet, no one has revealed any surveillance or any arrests or prosecutions for it. In that simple case, we see how benign the state is in its surveillance or how far it has accepted the idea of free speech even though it would, technically, have an interest in this part of the orthodoxy. Moreover, we see that its focus is on a narrow issue of physical and immediate threats to public order through violent acts that are designed to damage or destroy the society and its guardians rather than sustain some political orthodoxy. If the state and surveillance were focused on stopping free speech or chilling speech, it would focus on those activists or speakers who advocated the abolition of the crown, yet the surveillance state has not done that. When the state has put activists or speakers under surveillance these have been directed against public order threats rather than political speech. We only need to consider how extensively and widely “hate” preachers are able to operate before the state takes an interest. When they do, it is because their word is threatening to become a deed, which will affect public safety.
Is surveillance different from being in the public gaze?
In many ways, surveillance makes one self-conscious. In much the same way that a person becomes acutely self-conscious when they have to speak before a group. People would rather remain in the audience rather than be on the stage. Surveillance gives the psychological appearance that the person is no longer in the audience but on the stage. From this point, we can begin to understand why people in the entertainment industry and politicians are inured to surveillance. They are in the public gaze, they court it, and they attract it and surveillance is similar to being on the stage. For the average person, such attention may seem strange or threatening. Yet, the average person is unlikely to be under surveillance. If anyone has them under surveillance, it is likely their family, their work, or their community. The final actor, after all of these have been exhausted, is the laws.
Family and neighbours
Our family and neighbours are people for whom we would not say in private or public something that would embarrass or alarm them. In our family, there are topics we will not discuss or we would not want them to see us discussing. Often times, this will restrain some discussions and in that sense our concern for how our public comments affect our families or friends can inhibit what we say. We are censored by those relationships when their views actively inhibit us from speaking and we know why. In that sense, we try to conform to their expectations in speech and actions. The Ancient Greeks, through Oedipus Rex, revealed the power and danger of familial conformity and censorship for behaviour that was threatening to the family.
Our community, either the wider public or simply our cohort or network of contacts creates standards that constrain our opinions. These standards are often closely, but not completely related to the laws. This can include religious groups but only to the extent that it is a public religion. We can see this censorship at work on in contexts such as twitter, or Facebook, where a social group that determines what acceptable behaviour is. We can see this in political communities where the group’s orthodoxy must be respected or the speaker is reproached or potentially expelled. Baruch Spinoza is perhaps the best-known philosophical example. Our community, beyond our family and friend, create a constraint on our views. If we speak publicly our community, either physically or online, may express a view that our opinions are not welcome or are not acceptable within that community. Such speakers may find their accounts blocked, or disabled, and the community shunning them in public or refusing to engage with them. We must remember that in a liberal democracy public opinion is more tyrannical than the state in defence of its orthodoxy. Consider the case of Justine Sacco to see the power of public opinion on an individual.
Work (Not Suitable for Work).
At work, we see a form of surveillance and censorship from our employer’s expectation or even a legal requirement that certain speech be avoided. The colloquial phrase, Not Suitable for Work (NSFW) exemplifies this issue. In the United States for example, the freedom of speech does not extend into the company domain. A company can set rules regarding political speech within its workplace such as those stopping political speech. More generally, the standard of the workplace, (is it work related), determines whether some topics can be discussed.
The laws are the censor we consent to accept
Behind all of these communities as a last resort are the laws. The law constrains what we can or cannot say. The defamation law in the UK that came into force will change how people write. Most concerns about NSA surveillance are on what is written or recorded electronically rather than what is spoken extemporaneously. Even speech is covered by the law with slander and libel laws limiting what people can say with impunity.
Surveillance is not censorship: public opinion is a better censor than the state.
What we find is the NSA surveillance or any surveillance does not censor our speech so much that other institutions already in society, before the surveillance and distinct from surveillance, create a belief that we must censor ourselves or face censorship from them. In other words, we conform to our peer groups and the societal clues that do not require state surveillance or enforcement. If we focus on censorship, rather than conformity, the claim that surveillance creates censorship is not useful unless one knows the orthodoxy that surveillance seeks to defend. Surveillance for the sake of surveillance will have no effect on speech. Surveillance to defend the orthodoxy against its critics could. In liberal democracies, where freedom of speech is promoted and the orthodoxy is tolerant of dissent, it would take an extremely dangerous speech to even warrant surveillance and that would usually only be on the basis that a physical threat of disorder were proposed. To put it differently but directly, people regularly make radical statements without consequences. One could say that so many radical statements are made they drown each other out. Alternatively, radical statements are now so common that we do not recognize true radicalism as moderate and measured statements are ignored or shouted down. However, when word becomes deed then surveillance may become censorship, which is what the community expects and demands despite the myths to from those who benefit from an agitated public. Perhaps the conformity that is being demanded is that we accept that surveillance leads to censorship and conformity.
 We have to be clear to differentiate between censorship, which is a specific act by a group or the state to stop someone from speaking and chilling free speech, which is stopping anyone from speaking freely. Censorship usually implies or requires orthodoxy to be defended. By contrast chilling of free speech must suggest that people are unwilling to speak more generally not simply about a specific topic or topics. On the issue of conformity, consider http://psychology.about.com/od/socialinfluence/f/conformity.htm
 Please note that I distinguish between general opinions and the more specific case of “truth telling” as defined by the idea of parrhesia or truth telling in all settings literally “say anything”. The latter is a specific case in which the person knows, or at least has taken time to discover a truth and has to speak it for the benefit of the common good regardless of context or circumstance. This is not the same as speaking truth to power although it is related. Speaking truth to power is a subset of parrhesia, which is truth telling A whistle-blower is not by definition someone who is practicing parrhesia, they are making an opinion about an event or issue that needs to be tested to discover whether it is a truth. They believe a clear criminal wrongdoing has occurred which they know from their professional work. One does not claim to be a whistle-blower to have a “debate” or to let people decide. In a liberal democratic state with elected representatives exercising administrative responsibility such a role does not exist because the system, by its structure, intent, and design, is for democratic debate.
 I also distinguish between monitoring the various domains, like the published press, and surveillance which is directed towards a specific person, topic, or target. Surveillance is not monitoring or collecting. Surveillance has to be intentional with a target and a purpose that reflect the state’s politically legitimate process. To put it another way, even theocracies have intelligence agencies.
 If someone publishes something on their company’s internal email system or their intranet, they are still subject to the law of libel or defamation. The law does not distinguish between private and public statements.
 On speaker’s corner someone may take exception to what you are saying and react to it either verbally or physically, which is a crude form of accountability.
 In this sense, one could say the NSA surveillance reminds one of God. As the believer understand that God knows what is in their hearts and what their intent is behind their acts. Perhaps people are uncomfortable with confronting their conscience once they are reminded of it? This is not to preclude the danger of a state abusing surveillance, which is why the focus here is on a liberal democratic state, which starts with the assumptions that the individual is well protected and has a robust legal and political system to protect an individuals legal and political rights.
 Public opinion is not always the same the orthodoxy. In a liberal democratic state, the state defends the orthodoxy even from public opinion although even the state may succumb to a sustain assault by public opinion.