Ubiquitous surveillance, the IP Act and implications for freedom of expression in Scotland

Lauren Smith, Nik Williams

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


This paper illustrates how the explosive growth and proliferating use of surveillance technologies and big data has implications for intellectual freedom and civic discourse. Reporting on the findings of a study of Scottish writers conducted by the University of Strathclyde and writers' association Scottish PEN, we discuss the implications of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 and emerging practices of researchers and corporate agencies on freedom of expression.
Our findings indicate that writers are not only worried about surveillance, but actively engage in self-censorship as a result. There is widespread concern among writers about government and corporate surveillance, and few dismiss it as a trivial or unavoidable matter. The majority of participants reported that they were very or somewhat concerned about the UK government’s new law (the IP Act) to collect and analyse data and metadata on e-mails, browsing and other online activity of Britons. The majority also feel that the UK government’s internet surveillance is an invasion of privacy. Writers reported that increased government surveillance activity would make them use the internet differently to communicate, research and work. In many cases writers are already engaging in self-protective behaviour that is limiting their freedom to research and write freely, both publicly and privately. Changes in behaviour identified by writers as a result of concerns around surveillance include self-censorship of research, writing and speech. The vast majority of participants reported that they are not adequately informed or skilled to protect themselves online and know little or nothing about encryption.
This lack of digital and information agency has implications for citizens' ability to exercise their civic rights. Through discussion of key issues through a critical theoretical lens, drawing on concepts including panopticism (Foucault 1975), communicative action (Habermas 1981) and agency in digital spaces (Loader 1998), this paper explores the implications of big data and surveillance on intellectual freedom and civic discourse. We conclude that surveillance poses risks to creativity and free expression. We make recommendations for policy and practice, including the need for widespread critical digital and information literacy support for writers and the general public, to mitigate against the chilling effects of corporate and state surveillance. We also make recommendations relating to policies and practices for researchers and organisations using big data and algorithmic governance.


ConferenceECREA Symposium on Digital Democracy
Internet address


  • democracy
  • freedom of expression
  • self-censorship
  • surveillance
  • internet privacy


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