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EARN-IT threatens encryption and therefore user freedom

by Greg Farough Contributions Published on Mar 10, 2022 05:02 PM

A campaign recently launched in the United Kingdom demonizes encryption as something only a criminal would so much as want to use, and the rationale behind the "Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies" (EARN-IT) Act currently on the floor of the US Senate is much the same. Everywhere we turn, we find senators and talking heads claiming that governments around the world need to hold "Big Tech accountable," and they say one important step of that is banning end-to-end encryption. Criminals, they say, shouldn't be given a way to secure their communications from scrutiny. It's no surprise to hear governments pointing to crime as a way to justify encroachments on individual freedom -- or, for that matter, to use loaded words like "hide." Are you "hiding" when you lock the door of your home every day, just because the government is not permitted to enter it without a warrant? Is it "hiding" to seal the envelope of the card you're sending your Valentine? Even if you accept that this is hiding, end-to-end encryption is not only, or even primarily, for hiding from bulk government surveillance.

Anytime lawmakers begin to contemplate the so-called "rampant" misuse of end-to-end encryption, they would do well to reflect on the positive ways it's being used on a daily basis. A lot of time is (rightly) devoted to how it has protected whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, but end-to-end encryption has vital use cases that are much closer to home. Free, encrypted messaging, for example, helps protect queer youth from intolerant violence (at home and abroad, as in Ghana). At the same time, in a world where abusers can stalk their victims solely by hiding an AirTag in their bag, end-to-end encryption plays a direct role in helping victims out of these relationships by enabling them to contact friends for help. There are as many use cases for end-to-end encryption as there are people using it. To say otherwise shows not only a paucity of imagination, but is something that can only be spoken from a position of power and privilege.

Our campaigns, and the history of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), show that we don't just want to hold "Big Tech accountable." Looking past that somewhat misleading term, we believe that the corporations that comprise "Big Tech," like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, among others, need to be radically remade, with respect for user freedom at their foundations. And while we appreciate companies like Apple and Meta are making a lot of commercials about end-to-end encryption, we need to remember that these companies, in the bigger picture, are no friend to user freedom. It's part of our role as activists to help those companies see that their support of technologies like end-to-end encryption should be expanded to support other important aspects of software and user freedom.

With efforts like the EARN-IT Act, Congress is only going after "Big Tech" in a highly specific sense: namely, by putting the privacy of all computer users at serious risk. At the same time, any legal measure regulating encryption is going to impact the implementation of encryption in free software, and its use by free software users. Once a backdoor is made, we don't get to specify how it's used, or by whom. It is, by definition, a security risk.

In an "EARN-IT" world, simply using encryption can be used as a strike against you in a court of law. As user freedom activists, one response of ours should be to normalize encryption as much as possible. Whistleblowers are important for multiple different kinds of freedom, including user freedom, and we need to make sure the people whistleblowing on General Public License (GPL) violations, Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) rootkits, or any number of tech injustices don't stand out from the crowd for their use of encryption. The fact that people take seriously the idea that only criminals would use encryption should give us pause: it means we've failed in our goal to bring privacy to the majority of users, and need to do more.

That first step to doing more? Stopping EARN-IT in its tracks. The FSF urges all of its supporters to contact their local congresspeople and advise them to vote against the EARN-IT Act. No matter where you are in the world, please stand firm in campaigning for the right for whistleblowers and everyday people alike to secure their communications from bulk surveillance. After all, today's everyday person may need to become tomorrow's whistleblower.

US Citizens: Take action!

Nervous? Try using the following script:


I live in CITY/STATE. I am calling to urge you to vote against the EARN-IT Act. End-to-end encryption is vital to a free digital society, and protects everyone's privacy, including some of society's most vulnerable people. There are other ways of catching criminals that won't impact the privacy and personal freedom of all American citizens. Thank you for your time.

Don't know who to call?

  • To call your congressperson directly, dial (202) 224-3121 and the switchboard will connect you.

  • Alternatively, you can find contact information for both your local senator and House representative online in the Senate and House directories.

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