Has government surveillance chilled Muslims online?

Muslim Internet

In July 2007, researcher Dawinder S. Sidhu commissioned the University of Oklahoma’s Public Opinion Learning Laboratory (UOPOLL) to conduct a survey that investigated “if and to what extent Muslims in the United States, concerned that the government may track their online movements, have changed their use of the Internet after 9/11.”[1]  The survey conducted 308 scripted interviews with US residents who identified themselves as Muslims.

The survey was brief and high level. It tried to ascertain if Muslim Americans thought of themselves as being surveilled, and if this changed their overall usage of the Internet. Sidhu, who commissioned the survey, wrote that the general takeaway of the survey was that “Muslim-Americans not only believe the government monitors their routine activities, but that such concerns have translated into actual changes in daily behavior.”[2] The actual responses, however, suggest that the vast majority of the respondents did not change their general activities or their usage of the Internet due to a fear of government surveillance.

The UOPOLL survey found that most respondents used the Internet over the past decade, with 80.1% respondents using before 9/11, 87.8% did so after 9/11, and 90.4% at the time of the survey in 2007.  Most respondents also believed that the government was currently monitoring the activities of Muslims in the U.S. It found that 71.7% of respondents believed such monitoring occurred, while 4.2% disbelieved that such monitoring occurred. Also, 70.7% of respondents believed the government was currently monitoring Internet activities of Muslims in the U.S., while 4.8% did not believe it monitored Muslims online. In summary, most polled Muslims used the Internet, believed the US government was monitoring Muslims in the US, and that it was doing so online.

The survey also inquired into whether respondents changed their behavior in response to the perception of being monitored by the government. It found that most respondents did not report many changes to their behavior.  86.8% of respondents said they didn’t change their general activities after 9/11 due to a fear of government surveillance. 11.6% said they did change their activities: 6.1% said they made slight changes; 2.3% said they made moderate changes; 1.6% said they made many changes; and 1.6% said they made significant changes).  A smaller majority of respondents also did not know of other Muslims who changed their activities after 9/11 because of surveillance concerns.  65.9% of respondents said they were not aware of other Muslims who had changed, while 25.4% said they did know other Muslims changing their general behavior.

In terms of alterations in behavior on the Internet, a vast majority said they have not made any changes to their Internet usage after 9/11 out of fear of surveillance by the government.  89.1% said they had not changed anything about their Internet usage, including what sites they visit or the amount of time they spend on the Internet. 8.4% said they changed their Internet usage, with 3.9% reporting slight changes, 1.6% reporting moderate changes, 1.9% reporting many changes, and 1.0% reporting significant changes due to fear of surveillance by the government.  Of the 8.4% that reported they had made changes to their Internet behavior, 57.6% said they did not visit certain websites after 9/11 at all because of concern of government surveillance. The majority of the respondents also reported that they did not know of other Muslims who had changed their Internet behavior after 9/11 for fear of surveillance.  77.2% of respondents reported this, while 11.9% said they did know other Muslims who had altered their Internet behavior.  Of this 11.9%, 45.6% said they avoided certain websites because of fear of government surveillance.

The UOPOLL survey found that Muslims in America have changed their general behavior and their usage of the Internet as of 2007, but not to a great extent.  Sidhu acknowledged that there is still a great deal of research needed to explore the topic. He thought one pressing question is why there was such a gulf between the high number of respondents who thought they were being surveilled by the government and the low number who changed their behavior.[3]  Another open question is whether Muslim Americans have changed specific online practices as a result of awareness of surveillance.  Are they less likely to send certain messages, post on certain forums, search for certain terms, visit certain sites, or use certain ISPs? Even if their general usage of the Internet hasn’t changed much, are there specific practices that have?  And one final gap to be explored is whether confirmations that government agencies are in fact surveilling Muslim communities – like the AP’s revelations about the NYPD – have an effect on Muslim Americans’ behavior that is different from mere suspicion that there a surveillance program exists.

[1] Dawinder S. Sidhu, The Chilling Effect of Government Surveillance Programs on the Use of the Internet by Muslim-Americans, 7 U. Md. L.J. Race, Religion, Gender & Class 375, 376 (2007).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 392.