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WhatsApp, Censorship, EARN IT, and the End of Free Speech

Last updated on January 14th, 2021

Yesterday as I was strategizing how to best use IFTTT to automate platform growth, I stumbled across an article about IFTTT by Mere Civilian that linked a Forbes article about why the founder of WhatsApp left Facebook. His name is Brian Acton and he’s the founder of Signal, a private messaging app with end-to-end encryption. That post led to many others, and this post is the result. Read it and weep.

Follow my rabbit trail of curiosity to discover why the end of free speech is near.

Key Takeaways (for those who don’t have time to read the post)

  • The EARN IT Act (S.3398), if passed, will remove your right to privacy.
  • The Signal messaging app is your best bet for avoiding censorship and invasion of privacy.
  • Consider removing Google from your life and spreading privacy.

Messaging Data Control is a Thing

Brian Acton left Facebook over privacy concerns. He did not want the app to access user data and share it with marketers the way Facebook does. And when he signed “the biggest internet deal in a decade” he had reason to believe it never would.

The deal needed to get past Europe’s famously strict antitrust officials, and Facebook prepared Acton to meet with around a dozen representatives of the European Competition Commission in a teleconference. “I was coached to explain that it would be really difficult to merge or blend data between the two systems,” Acton says. He told the regulators as much, adding that he and Koum had no desire to do so.

Later he learned that elsewhere in Facebook, there were “plans and technologies to blend data.” …

Within 18 months, a new WhatsApp terms of service linked the accounts and made Acton look like a liar. 

Forbes Exclusive: WhatsApp Cofounder Brian Acton Gives The Inside Story On #DeleteFacebook And Why He Left $850 Million Behind

Messaging Censorship is a Thing

Signal already has millions of users. I downloaded it yesterday and began setting it up. Under “Settings” the last option is “Advanced.” And the last option under “Advanced” is “Censorship Circumvention” whose toggle switch is off. A message below says “Censorship circumvention is not necessary; you are already connected to the Signal service.”

What?

Ever curious, I searched “whatsapp censorship.” Here’s what I learned:

China used to censor WhatsApp multimedia messages, presumably by redirecting the servers for downloading multimedia content. Now China blocks WhatsApp entirely, although there are workarounds.

Signal was aware of China’s censorship, and created a solution to censorship in Egypt, Oman, Qatar, and UAE that was later thwarted.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp has created their own form of censorship, whether you’re willing to call it that or not.

WhatsApp Censorship is a Thing

Web24 News addresses a “hoax” of Whatsapp censorship by pointing out the platform has merely “limited, without prohibiting, the massive forwarding of messages around the world… to prevent… hoaxes from going viral.”

The Verge explains the reasoning behind WhatsApp messaging limits:

For much of WhatsApp’s existence, it was easy for users to forward a single message to as many as 256 people with just a few taps. Initially, these messages were not labeled as forwards, and the end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp could make it almost impossible for authorities to determine who might be using the app to spread hate speech or calls to violence. This triggered a crisis in India, where WhatsApp was linked to mob violence.

The Verge, WhatsApp puts new limits on the forwarding of viral messages

So now WhatsApp makes it harder to forward messages, making users send one-by-one rather than to their entire list of contacts. In other words, “We’ll decide how widely your messages are worth sharing. We know you poor plebians can’t be trusted to know what’s true or false, good or bad, so no more viral content for you!”

Messaging apps are all at risk of spreading hoaxes and lies. But that’s true of any form of communication, which is why Fake News is even a thing.

Freedom of Speech is a Thing

I’ve received some pretty goofy conspiracy theory videos from friends via Facebook Messenger. If they ask my opinion about the video, it’s an opportunity to discuss ideas and the credibility and motives of the content creator. Most of the time they don’t ask. Whether they ask or not, shouldn’t users be allowed to freely communicate with their contacts?

I think they should. Freedom of speech isn’t just a nice idea. It’s vital to fighting injustice, gas lighting, oppression, and every other kind of evil.

As I pointed out above, Signal offered censorship circumvention in countries that restrict free speech by using Google and Amazon cloud services, but policy changes at those organizations removed the option. I don’t know if they’ve found a workaround yet. It doesn’t matter, because Signal’s offer of private messaging is about to be compromised.

The EARN IT Act, Section 230, and Encryption

The Earn It Act is a bill that, on the surface, seems like a great idea, a way to fight very bad guys. It amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow legal consequences against internet publishers if one of their users shares or uploads illegal content. Here’s why it fails:

The EARN IT Act cannot coexist with end-to-end encryption. End-to-end encryption means a publisher like Signal never has access to the content shared by users. The Earn It Act gives the government the power to decide what “best practices” publishers must follow to be protected from legal consequences based on user content. If the government decides to require police access to user data, end-to-end encryption cannot be used.

So a nonprofit like Signal would be at risk of unlimited lawsuits if it turns out any of their users are doing bad stuff via their app. You know, like when hundreds were arrested after a crime chat network was cracked. (I’m embarrassed to admit, when I shared that EncroChat story, I called it good news. It wasn’t until later that I realized that government access to private conversations equals zero privacy.)

Privacy and the end of free speech

For the first time, I agree with the ACLU. Newsweek’s report on passage of the EARN IT Act came just 22 hours ago. It includes these ACLU comments:

The American Civil Liberties Union, also in strong opposition, says the Act will grant “broad authority” to the panel to make practices that could “encourage platforms to undermine strong encryption methods and place our online privacy at risk.”

It stated in a letter to senators the Act could “chill vast amounts of protected speech online” by undermining the privacy of communications while forcing the tech firms to “adopt overbroad content censorship and moderation practices.”

Newsweek: Earn It Act Gets ‘Unanimous Approval’ But Experts Warn of Privacy Risks

The folks at Signal agree, and restate the obvious: Bad people will always be motivated to go the extra mile to do bad things.

The US military recommends Signal. Senators and staff can use Signal. The EU Commission encourages its staff to use Signal. Why? Because privacy is vital to our individual, national, and international security.

To Encrypt or to Censor, That is the Question

The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers these insights:

[The EARN IT Act] will put encryption providers in an awful conundrum: either face the possibility of losing everything in a single lawsuit, or undermine their users’ security, making all of us more vulnerable to online criminals.

The EARN IT Act is an unconstitutional constraint on free expression. The government must not be allowed to create new rules mandating how websites manage user-generated content. We wouldn’t let Congress demand that newspapers cover certain stories, or slant the news. Similarly, lawmakers shouldn’t make rules that require websites to screen and censor user speech.

The ACLU and EFF both got it right. When privacy ends, free speech ends.

Signal offers us all a call to action:

There is still time to make your voice heard. We encourage US citizens to reach out to their elected officials and express their opposition to the EARN IT bill. You can find contact information for your representatives using The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Action Center.

Signal: 230, or not 230? That is the EARN IT question.

Stanford Analysis of the EARN IT Act

But wait, there’s more. The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School has produced two articles about the EARN IT Act. The most recent one is called THE EARN IT ACT IS HERE. SURPRISE, IT’S STILL BAD NEWS. In it, author Rianna Pfefferkorn points out many problems with this bill.

For one thing, “since AG Barr despises encryption (and because, as said, the 14-of-19 requirement means all the members who are experts in privacy, cryptography, and data security can be totally ignored), of course the best practices will go after encryption.”

A committee-determined list of “best practices” amounts to sidestepping proper procedures for creating new laws and rules. (“It wasn’t a law, it wasn’t an agency rulemaking, it was a set of “best practices” that just happened to also have the force of law because not following them would open providers up to liability and oh also maybe land one of their executives in prison.”) It’s a way to fast-track a new law that attacks Americans’ rights to privacy.

EARN IT and State Actors

Pfefferkorn also links to TechFreedom’s letter about the EARN IT Act’s “state actor” problem under the Fourth Amendment. The letter is long and meaty. Here are a couple of key takeaways:

In short, the EARN IT Act contains a ticking constitutional time bomb that could take years to explode: it could jeopardize all convictions of those directly generating, trafficking and consuming CSAM (child sexual abuse material). Yes, Congress could then go back to the drawing board, but these individuals would go unpunished — and there would be a period of chaos, during which ICS
providers may simply cease cooperating with law enforcement. Even before such a decision, the risk that it could happen will only discourage law enforcement from investing their limited resources in enforcing existing federal law.

Later, as they bring the letter to a close, they explain

Finally, the idea behind the EARN IT Act — or at least, the appearance the bill takes upon first inspection — is sound: an expert commission should be convened to study the problem of CSAM, and quickly. Such a commission could even recommend best practices for private companies, and explore how to facilitate better cooperation amongst them and with NCMEC. What we object to is giving those best practices the force of law as de facto mandates, and the enormous legal liability the EARN IT Act would create.

Key Takeaways

I haven’t finished reading much less digesting the Stanford article yet. Here are my key takeaways so far:

  • The goal of “identifying and reporting online child sexual exploitation” is admirable, but it must not be accomplished at the cost of Constitutional freedoms.
  • The EARN IT Act promotes censorship since platform owners could be sued for the speech and behavior of users.
  • It will “disproportionately harm… those with marginalized or minority views” on both ends of the spectrum, whether “LGTBQ and sexworkers” or conservative Christians and anti-vaxxers.
  • Regardless of who makes up the commission to determine “best practices” for online publishers, its existence will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
  • Creating “best practices” that enable legal action if they are not followed amounts to side-stepping the normal procedures for rules and laws.
  • EARN IT compliance and true end-to-end encryption are incompatible, which means the EARN IT Act will jeopardize the privacy of every American.
  • Blumenthal’s characterization of Section 230 protections as offering “blanket immunity, a shield against any accountability” ignores the obvious purpose of Section 230 to protect our Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
  • The rights to privacy and freedom of speech are inseparable and foundational to freedom.

It goes without saying you should install Signal or another private messaging app if you care about privacy.

Final Thoughts

As of January 13, 2021, I’ve decided to publish this post “as is” and not worry about making it pretty, or getting the latest on the EARN IT Act.

This is a good time to consider breaking up with big tech like Google. Here’s how to remove Google from your life.

Always know that, whether we ever connect again, you are deeply loved by the One who created you. God gave His Son, Jesus, to pay for your sins so you could enjoy an eternal relationship with Him. He offers something nobody can censor: intimate communion with God, love that cannot be withheld. Here’s what it’s like: “The Love of Jesus, What it is — None but His Loved Ones Know.” (Scroll to the last page for old-time preacher Charles Spurgeon’s explanation of the Gospel and how to be saved.)