Forthcoming Article on “Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use”

A forthcoming BTLJ Article by scholar Jonathon Penney of the University of Toronto’s interdisciplinary Citizen Lab titled Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use has made news around the globe in top media outlets, including:

Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use

Jonathon W. Penney


This Article discusses the results of the first empirical study demonstrating 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.

UPDATE – The final draft can be found here: Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use

The article should be cited at Jonathon W. Penney, Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use, 31 Berkeley Tech. L.J. (forthcoming June 2016).