Restricting encryption is restricting free speech

David Cameron said yesterday:

In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we [the Government] cannot read?”

Bytemark’s answer: “yes, we do!”

If the Prime Minister is proposing banning or hobbling our encryption standards by statute, he is proposing to limit freedom of expression. That’s the freedom he claimed ‘we would never give upʼ less than a week ago.

Encryption simply enables two parties to communicate securely through a channel they don’t control. It underpins the global technology industry. Consumers trust SSL encryption (the browser “padlock”) to protect their financial details from thieves when they shop online, or do their banking. They trust “end to end” encryption (such as PGP, Whatsapp and Telegram) to keep their personal messages private on their phones.

Restricting encryption by statute will affect internet users’ confidence in services that are crucial to the economy. That may result in tech firms pulling out rather than make special arrangements for the UK. Google has pulled engineers out of Russia, and shut down their News service in Spain in the face of government restrictions on the fundamentals of their business.

A UK-specific cryptographic “back-door” would become a huge target for criminals. The UK government simply would not be able to keep it secure for long, particularly if it needed to give access to police and security services. Remember the council who used anti-terror laws to check if a family were really living in a school catchment area? Imagine if they’d been able to read those parents’ emails too.

Even a credible threat of restricting encryption would take the bottom out of internet businesses operating in the UK. If Bytemark (and other data centres) couldn’t sell encrypted services on the same terms as the rest of the world, our businesses would vanish overseas within months.

Encryption is mathematics, not technology. It can’t be suppressed by law. If it were banned or restricted, criminals would still be able to use it exactly as they can today. Even without computers, you can encrypt securely with a pen, paper and deck of playing cards.

So far it’s not a credible threat. The PM’s words are so far just opportunistic bluster. Unless he is willing to put forward Chinese or North Korean levels of totalitarian control over our network – and pay billions to interfere with an entire industry – this hot air will disperse.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, Frank La Rue, stated in 2013:

“The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression.”

We agree, and we look forward to working with the Open Rights Group and the rest of the internet industry to ensure the UK’s internet stays open for business.

Read more coverage: Can the government ban encryption?