Universität Zürich

IKMZ - Department of Communication and Media Research

Media Change & Innovation Division

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The Chilling Effects of Dataveillance: Conceptual Advances and Empirical Evidence for Switzerland

This project aims at conceptually capturing and empirically assessing chilling effects, i.e., inhibitory effects on people’s digital communication behaviors that result from their sense of being surveilled online. It contributes to a thorough understanding of the implications of dataveillance by corporations and states from an empirical communication-science perspective by focusing on individual chilling effects (e.g., of information seeking, posting) in the context of their societal impacts (e.g., on democratic processes) and their governance (e.g., by regulation of dataveillance or by users’ self-help).

Funded by:   

About the Project

In Switzerland, digital media have become the most convenient means to perform everyday activities such as seeking information or exchanging ideas. Beyond active content creation or “liking” and “following”, merely being online produces persistent digital traces. The growing collection and analysis of this (big) data, termed dataveillance, is automated, continuous, inexpensive, and opaque. This wide-reaching system may produce a diffuse sense of being constantly watched, potentially deterring people from permitted or even socially desirable behavior. Dataveillance can thereby lead to self-censorship, conformity, and anticipatory obedience. Such chilling effects inhibit the exercising of fundamental rights and consequently constitute a subtle, cumulative risk for individual autonomy, well-being, and democratic participation in digital societies.

 

 

The consequences of self-inhibited communication are potentially far-reaching and there are still significant theoretical and empirical gaps. This project contributes to closing them by developing (1) a coherent theoretical framework, (2) an appropriate mixed-methods approach, and (3) unique empirical evidence for Switzerland. For the theoretical gap, knowledge is wanted on the scope, process, consequences, and governance of chilling effects. For this, the project reconciles the insights from legal chilling effects scholarship with social-science theories (e.g., theory of planned behavior, digital well-being theory) and findings on individuals’ online privacy behavior. Based on this, theoretical causal modeling sheds light on the mechanisms of chilling effects.

 

Key Questions

  • Does an increase in dataveillance increase inhibited digital communication, i.e., lead to chilling effects?
  • How do internet users experience chilling effects? What kinds of communication and which groups are most affected?
  • What are viable governance options for dataveillance practices?

 

Key Concepts

Digital traces Data about individuals' digital communication behavior, in particular of behaviors perceived by the individual as having a primarily ephemeral and contextual character (but made persistent through datafication).
Dataveillance The automated and continuous collection, retention, and analysis of digital traces by state and corporate actors, predominantly to compile data related to individuals from multiple sources (profiling).
Chilling effect The self-inhibition of engagement in legitimate activities because of salient potential repercussions; here applied as dataveillance's self-inhibitory effect on digital communication.

 

Methods

Empirical tests of the chilling-effects proposition for digitally mediated communication are scarce and incomplete. This project addresses these empirical gaps with an innovative mix of complementary methods with unique strengths:

 

  • Qualitative interviews determine the scope of relevant digital communication and the triggers of chilling effects.
  • Mobile experience sampling provides longer-term, externally valid insights into the magnitude, duration, and predictors of chilling effects. It includes an experimental treatment of participants’ sense of dataveillance to estimate its causal effect on communication behavior. Natural events (e.g., publicized data scandals) are controlled for through media monitoring. Follow-up focus groups provide ex-post interpretations of chilling effects.
  • Agent-based social simulation aids theory development, estimates system-level dynamics, and assesses non-manipulable scenarios (e.g., extreme increase in dataveillance).
  • A population-level online survey, finally, measures the prevalence of chilling effects and adaptations in everyday digital communication representatively for Swiss internet users as an evidence base for country-level governance choices.

 

With this mix of methods, this project is the first to empirically assess chilling effects as a consequence of dataveillance in a more holistic way: the research design can detect theoretically informed causal pathways that apply to a general population in an everyday digital communication context.

 

The project is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Presentations

  • Büchi, Moritz / Festic, Noemi / Latzer, Michael (2021, Sep): Theorizing the chilling effects of dataveillance. European Communication Conference of the European Communication Research and Education Association (virtual event).
  • Büchi, Moritz / Festic, Noemi / Latzer, Michael (2020, Nov): The chilling effects of dataveillance: empirical evidence. Swiss Association of Communication and Media Research Annual Conference (virtual event).
  • Büchi, Moritz / Festic, Noemi / Latzer, Michael (2020, Oct): The chilling effects of dataveillance: Analyzing Internet users’ behavioral modifications and counter-practices. Association of Internet Researchers Annual Conference (virtual event).
  • Büchi, Moritz (2019): The chilling effects of digital surveillance, Scientifica: Zurich Science Days, ETH Zurich and University of Zurich. [presentation]

Related MCI Publications

  • Büchi, Moritz / Fosch Villaronga, Eduard / Lutz, Christoph / Tamò-Larrieux, Aurelia / Velidi, Shruthi / Viljoen, Salome (2020): The chilling effects of algorithmic profiling: Mapping the issues. Computer Law & Security Review 36: 105367. doi: 10.1016/j.clsr.2019.105367 [more]
  • Latzer, Michael / Büchi, Moritz / Festic, Noemi (2020): Internet Use in Switzerland 2011—2019: Trends, Attitudes and Effects. Summary Report from the World Internet Project – Switzerland. Zurich, Switzerland: University of Zurich. [pdf]
  • Micheli, Marina / Lutz, Christoph / Büchi, Moritz (2018): Digital Footprints: An Emerging Dimension of Digital Inequality. In: Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society, 16(3), 242–251. [more]
  • Büchi, Moritz / Festic, Noemi / Just, Natascha / Latzer, Michael (2018): Inequality in Online Privacy: Direct and Indirect Sociodemographic Effects on Self-Protection. Working Paper. University of Zurich. [more] [pdf]
  • Büchi, Moritz / Just, Natascha / Latzer, Michael (2017): Caring is not enough: The importance of Internet skills for online privacy protection. In: Information, Communication & Society, 20(8), 1261-1278. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1229001 [more] [pdf]