Facebook: US, UK and Australia calls to stop encryption plans is a threat to free speech and privacy

ARTICLE 19 has reacted to calls by the US, UK and Australian Governments for Facebook not to proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services unless it includes “means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens.”

Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director, commented: 

“Encryption is a basic requirement for keeping information confidential and secure, and essential for the protection of the right to freedom of expression online. Under international human rights law, states must refrain from requiring decryption of encrypted data or the disclosure of decryption keys in any circumstances other than by court orders that meet the strict requirements for restrictions.”

“Instead of relying on court orders for access in individual cases, three Governments are calling for the creation of backdoor for law enforcement to access communications of the Facebook users and for more surveillance powers.”

“This could be particularly dangerous for human rights defenders, whistleblowers, women and minority groups and larger civil society movements as they increasingly face reprisals for what they say.”

“This is a call for weakening encryption and poses a significant threat to the confidentiality of communications and the right to privacy and freedom of expression of Facebook users. Weakening encryption makes everyone vulnerable to bad actors and criminal behaviour, such as identity theft or fraud, and it would make cyberattacks at both a national and international level more likely.”

Applicable international human rights standards

Under international human rights standards, restriction of the right to freedom of expression for reasons of national security must meet certain conditions known as the “three-part test” developed by the UN Human Rights Committee. National security cannot be used as a pretext for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations, such as in this case, and may only be invoked when there exists adequate safeguards and effective remedies against abuse.  As ARTICLE 19 outlined in the Johannesburg Principles, developed in 1995 by a group of international experts, expression may be regarded as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; it is likely to incite such violence; and there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence.

For ARTICLE 19’s policy on encryption, see Right to Online Anonymity at  https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38006/Anonymity_and_encryption_report_A5_final-web.pdf

For ARTICLE 19 policy on freedom of expression and national security, see Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/joburg-principles.pdf