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

By Chris Lamb

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?

Chris Lamb is a freelance software developer and the current Debian Project Leader. You can read other posts by me, see software I have written or read more about me. You can also follow me @lolamby.

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Planets: ALUG UWCS WUGLUG Debian

Friday 10th July 2015

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