Where's the principled opposition to the "WhatsApp ban"?

The Independent reports that David Cameron wishes to ban the instant messaging application WhatsApp due its use of end-to-end encryption.

That we might merely be pawns in manoeuvring for some future political compromise (or merely susceptible to clickbait) should be cause for concern, but what should worry us more is that if it takes scare stories about WhatsApp to awaken us on the issues of privacy and civil liberties then the central argument against surveillance was lost a long time ago.

However, the situation worsens once you analyse the disapproval in more detail. One is immediately struck by a predominant narrative of technical considerations; a ban would be "unworkable" or "impractical". Do we see a robust defence of personal liberty or a warning about the insidious nature of chilling effects? Perhaps a prescient John Locke quote to underscore the case? No. An encryption ban would "cause security problems."

(The argument proceeds in a tediously predictable fashion: it was already difficult to keep track whether one should ipso facto be in favour of measures that benefit the economy but we are all co-opted as technocrats to rue the "damage" it could to do the recovery or the impact on a now-victimised financial sector. The «coup-de-grâce» finally appeals to our already inflated self-regard and narcissism: someone could "steal your identity.")

Perhaps even more disappointing is the reaction from more technically-minded circles who should know better. Here, they give the impression of metaphorically stockpiling copies of the GnuPG source code in their bunkers, perhaps believing the shallow techno-utopianist worldview that all social and cultural problems can probably be solved with Twitter or just by "using a VPN."

The tragedy here is that I suspect that this isn't what the vast majority of people really believe. Given a hypothetical ban that could, somehow, bypass all of the stated concerns, I'm pretty upbeat and confident that most people would remain uncomfortable with it on some level.

So what, exactly, does it take for us to oppose this kind of intervention on enduring principled grounds instead of transient and circumventable practical ones? Is the problem just a lack of vocabulary to discuss these issues on a social scale? A lack of courage?

Whilst it's certainly easier to dissect illiberal measures on technical merit than to make an impassioned case for abstract freedoms, every time we gleefully cackle "it won't work" we are, in essence, conceding the central argument to the authoritarian and the censorious. If one is right but for the wrong reasons, were we even right to begin with?

Comments (4)


I feel the same way every time I see serious consideration given to a proposal for some new tax-funded service, evaluating whether it will help, whether it'll be worth it, whether it'll be a net positive, etc. Sure, that's a little better than *not* considering whether it's good value for the money spent. But accepting that argument to begin with is giving up a critical piece of ground; it accepts that the government is allowed to do anything that's a "net benefit" to society, measured solely by aggregate help and harm. It dismisses the possibility that most such things should be unacceptable on their face, whether they help more than they hurt or not, precisely because a higher standard must be applied to measures that demand universal participation and universal funding. Choose how to spend your resources however you like, but there must be an exceptionally high threshold of near-universal agreement to spend someone else's resources against their will, no matter how noble the cause claims to be.

July 10, 2015, 9:19 p.m. #

Part of the issue is that it's much more difficult to argue about principles than it is to argue about specifics. Talk to the average technologist about banning encryption and their initial, gut reaction is likely to be "does not compute". Push past the initial anger, and the first reaction might well be "good luck with that", not because that's a good argument but because there's some fundamental gut objection that makes it difficult to even comprehend how to respond to someone who could make that statement. The inferential distance is higher than expected.

'On two occasions I have been asked, "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" ... I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.'

The intersection of computing and politics often has to deal with this kind of issue. What do you get when you take a set of people who have not been steeped in the fundamental principles and culture of a field and yet take it upon themselves to regulate it? We have to get past the "how dare they" gut reaction, and actually fight to the best of our ability with every weapon we have available, including effective rhetoric.

This is a matter of principle, and as you said, we must be prepared to argue it on the basis of principle. And we must also be prepared for the opponents of our principles to not fight fair; they'll appeal to children and families, to safety, to crime, and to outrage. They'll spin a narrative in which this is a dangerous power only needed by people with something to hide.

We need to be prepared to meet and trump those arguments. And it's not entirely clear how to do so in every case. We're good at logical arguments; our opponents are good at ignoring logic and appealing to emotion.

Things like "backdoor keys couldn't be kept safe" are still just technical arguments. And as such, they'll be discounted by people who are willing to use phrases like "safe enough". To us, "safe enough" is another "does not compute"; your cryptosystem is secure or it isn't. Or if it has a strength, it can be quantified in the amount of computing power required to break it, not in the number of kneecaps required to break it.

And we can't necessarily appeal to political principles, either. "Free speech" resonates in the US, but not in the UK, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe; and even in the US it can be shouted down by censors shouting "think of the children" and fearmongers shouting "terrorists". Protecting people from oppressive governments doesn't resonate much; people in developed countries don't think "good" people have much to fear from their governments, and they don't anticipate the future day in which they're not classified as "good"; that's a thing that happens to other people, and those people must be doing something wrong.

So, what are the principles on which we could base an argument, which would resonate with the general public or even with (some subset of) politicians, and not just when preaching to the technologist choir?

July 10, 2015, 11:49 p.m. #
Lord Palmerston

In 1861 the UK was prepared to go to war with the US over a matter of
principle. Now we go to war when the US tells us to.

In 1861 we were not a democracy.

July 11, 2015, 8:34 a.m. #

Politicians have already been demonstrated to ignore arguments based on principle. The reason every opposition has to be phrased in terms of money, and more specifically in the effects of the proposed change on corporate profits, is that that's the only lever that has been shown to change politicians' minds.

July 22, 2015, 9:14 a.m. #