Following last week’s disturbing scenes – in which pro-Trump protesters and far-right extremists descended on Capitol Hill with the support of the President and several members of Congress – Amazon has opted to ban the well-known “free speech” platform Parler from its web-hosting service AWS.
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The ban which will see the extremist social networking site permanently shut down unless it is able to find hosting elsewhere, has been heralded as a win for democracy and the silencing of institutionalized white supremacist ideals.
The backlash against Parler, which was initiated by Amazon, was quickly followed by similar bans at the hands of other vendors – including email providers, text messaging services, and even law firms – which all opted to drop Parler from their books.
Most people will rightly celebrate the toppling of Parler – a platform often used to incite hatred and violence, and was directly exploited to disseminate the propaganda that culminated in the violence that led to five deaths in Capitol Building.
However, it seems important to consider how the riot may also be hijacked by US authorities to rush through legislation ultimately harmful to freedom of speech and privacy in the country.
The end of end-to-end-encryption?
For some time now, the US government has been seeking to crack down on secure messengers like Signal and WhatsApp due to their inclusion of end-to-end-encryption.
These kinds of messengers are vital to freedom of speech and are often used by activists, human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, and ordinary citizens seeking to exercise their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy.
In the wake of the current crisis, it seems valid to raise concerns over the potential that US authorities could opt to rush through legislation that forces services to provide backdoors into encrypted messengers – under the guise of national security.
If we introduce new domestic terrorism laws that expand US mass surveillance programs, the crisis promoted by Trump in an attempt to challenge the results of the presidential election, will culminate in the dismantling of vital privacy tools needed to maintain a healthy civil society.
Assault on privacy
US authorities have been seeking to enforce widespread encryption bans for a long time – with the support of fellow FIVE EYES nations in the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
In the last few year’s bills such as the EARN IT Act, and the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, have touted extremism as a reason to force Big Tech to weaken E2EE services.
Now, it seems plausible that the attack on Capitol Hill might be exploited to embolden that cause – despite the fact that breaking encryption is designed to give US snoops widespread access to citizens’ private communications – rather than to prevent the crimes that mass surveillance has been demonstrably shown to fail to stop time and again.
Following 911, the USA Patriot Act was rushed through to permit overreaching phone and internet surveillance capabilities. Almost 20 years later, those temporary measures are still in place.
The chance of something similar happening now is hugely troubling, because it might result in the Democratic Party passing legislation actively promoted by the Trump administration because of its usefulness in cracking down on social movements that oppose the institutionalized extremist ideologies currently running rampant across the US.
At the end of the day, any attempts to do away with Section 230, would amount to an open attack on freedom of speech, and any motion designed to force app stores like Google Play to remove access to encrypted messengers would be a direct assault on consumer privacy.
Such actions raise the question of how to prevent the spread of misinformation and intolerance without imposing on people’s rights and freedoms?
Either of these actions, as well as any attempts to break E2EE altogether, would be a violation of ordinary people’s freedom of expression. Actions that would ultimately harm minorities, anti-racist, and anti-fascist movements much more than criminals who would inevitably find some other means to spread their hate.
A crisis should not be exploited by the government to harm the rights of those people who voted for change, and it is vital for the incumbent president to consider this before making any rash decisions that could harm online privacy for years to come. Sadly, it seems likely that US authorities’ desire to snoop on everybody, at all times, transcends the line between red and blue.