Global Network of 40 Organisations Call on Governments to Protect Encryption, Ensure Open Internet

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A global network of over 40 organisations and companies, including Media Rights Agenda (MRA), has forged a common front in defense of the rights to privacy, free expression, press freedom, and self-determination by urging governments to publicly pledge their support to protect encryption and ensure a free and open internet.

The organisation and companies made the call through an open letter released on May 3, 2023, during the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day. They also called on governments to support the development and deployment of secure encryption tools and services; and ensure that law enforcement agencies have access to the tools and techniques needed to investigate serious crimes, while respecting the right to privacy and upholding the rule of law.

The signatories expressed concern that many democratic nations are threatening to force encrypted services to backdoor their encryption or block access to encrypted tools and services, saying these actions threaten privacy and put users at risk. The organisation called on governments to ensure that encryption is not being undermined or blocked and to revisit any bills, laws, and policies that legitimize undermining encryption or blocking access to encrypted communication services.

They noted that encryption is essential for users’ privacy, data security, safety online, press freedom, self-determination, and free expression, pointing out that without encryption, users’ data and communications can be accessed by law enforcement agents and malicious actors.

Attacks on encrypted services by governments, the groups said, threaten privacy and put users at risk. According to them, this is not just a problem faced by authoritarian countries, but also democratic nations such as the EU, the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia, countries which they said would like to force encrypted services to backdoor their encryption or block access to encrypted tools and services such as Tor, Signal, or Tutanota.

The open letter pointed out that encrypted services are vital for online privacy, freedom of the press, freedom of opinion and expression, noting that many journalists, whistleblowers, and activists depend on secure, encrypted solutions to protect their data and identity.

The organisations stated that attacks on encryption are attacks on the right to privacy pointing out that end-to-end encryption makes it impossible for messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal to share users’ messages with anyone, including law enforcement, politicians, government officials, and hackers. The end-to-end encryption of these apps, they said, also stops companies from using user data for ads and marketing.

The letter pointed out that the value of encryption technology in defending privacy is crucial, but noted that it is seen as a threat to law enforcement agents who argue that the ability to access individuals’ communications is critical for criminal investigations. This messaging has led to worrying initiatives such as the Online Safety Bill in the UK, the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act and EARN IT Act in the USA, India’s Directions 20(3)/2022 – CERT-In, Bill C26 in Canada, the Surveillance Legislation Amendment Act in Australia as well as proposed rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse in the EU. These laws, the letter said, aim to take away the right to privacy online by forcing encrypted services to weaken the security of their users or give law enforcement access to user information upon request.

Encrypted services such as Signal, Tutanota, and Threema have already announced that they will not weaken their encryption to comply with such stipulations. The ban on encrypted services is not surprising from authoritarian regimes but democratic governments like the UK, the US, the European Union, India, and Australia are moving in the same direction, which is worrisome. The organisation and companies said everyone deserves a free and open internet.

They emphasized that the Internet must remain inclusive, free, and fair by providing everyone with unfettered access to online services, including encrypted services, saying this enables users to exercise their right to privacy, engage in private discourse, and hold those in power accountable by shedding light on human rights abuses, corruption, misinformation, and environmental destruction – something that is vital to the democratic process of forming public opinion. Taking away the right to privacy online, they contend, limits the ability to exercise fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and opinion, press freedom, and freedom of speech.

The organizations call on all governments to ensure that encryption is not being undermined via overreaching legislative initiatives and that technologies providing secure, encrypted services are not being blocked or throttled. They also urge governments to revisit any bills, laws, and policies that legitimize undermining encryption or blocking access to services offering encrypted communication.