Preserving privacy rights in anti-terror laws

Richie Koch

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Our mission is to promote security, privacy, and freedom on the Internet. That encompasses technical solutions, such as Proton Mail and Proton VPN(new window), but also policy solutions. The right to privacy and user control of personal data will never be safe unless they are also guaranteed by law. Addressing one without the other is a futile endeavor. Last month, we attended the 2018 Tech Against Terrorism(new window) conference in Berlin to help address the policy challenges of online counterterrorism efforts.

The Tech Against Terrorism project was launched in April 2017 by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate(new window). Its goal is to bring together tech companies of all sizes, academia, civil societies, and lawmakers to discuss the best ways to protect human rights while ridding the Internet of terrorist content. At the core of the Tech Against Terrorism initiative is the Tech Against Terrorism Pledge(new window), which is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Pledge is a simple guide that explains how tech companies, large and small, can respect fundamental human rights while tackling terrorist exploitation of the Internet.

Participants at the Dec. 4 conference in Berlin included representatives from some of the world’s largest tech platforms (Facebook, etc.), Europol, the CyberTerrorism Project, and researchers monitoring the German far-right. As the world’s largest encrypted email provider(new window) and a major participant in the global privacy debate, we were invited to the conference to share our views.

While a UN-sponsored conference may seem like a strange place for Proton Mail to appear, we decided to participate because, now more than ever, it is essential to highlight the privacy implications of potential legislation(new window). Our purpose for attending the conference was to raise our objection to another vaguely written, sweeping bill, this time from the EU. The bureaucratically named “A proposal for a Regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online(new window)” will severely hamper freedom of speech on the Internet and give a competitive edge to large, monopolistic corporations like Google and Facebook. The regulation was so vague that it even seemed like it would ban end-to-end encrypted services, although the EU has since clarified that this will not be the case.

You cannot influence policy if you don’t have a seat at the table. While the discussions at the Tech Against Terrorism conference did not immediately break new ground, it was still essential for us to be present to advocate for privacy rights. We consider this to be a part of our mission that is just as essential as writing code.

As a privacy company, it is important for us to impact the public debate by educating politicians, policymakers, and private citizens about the importance of encryption(new window), the right to privacy(new window), and free speech on the Internet. There are numerous examples, from a former Australian Prime Minister struggling to accept the laws of mathematics(new window) to a US congressman not realizing that Google does not make iPhones(new window), that show that many policymakers simply do not understand basic information about the Internet. By providing our expertise, we hope to help create more informed and nuanced legislation.

Promoting responsible law enforcement

Proton Mail is not against law enforcement(new window). We have a zero-tolerance policy for criminal acts committed using Proton Mail. Democratic societies require security, both online and offline, and as citizens, we support the work law enforcement officers do to protect us.

We are, however, against the abuse of the law. Codifying poor practices into intrusive laws only reduces our collective security. All too often, lawmakers have made the mistake of thinking that privacy and security must be in opposition to one another. This fundamental misunderstanding has led to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act(new window), Australia’s Assistance and Access Bill(new window), and the EU’s latest regulation proposal.

These bills are policy disasters that weaken and undermine encryption, making the entire Internet less secure(new window). Through our engagement with policymakers, we intend to prevent such abuses in the future.

Removing terrorist content from the Internet is a sensitive topic that will have far-reaching consequences on the freedom of speech and the right to privacy. It will require a concerted effort from lawmakers, non-governmental organizations, civil society actors, and other tech companies to ensure we, as a society, strike the right balance. In this context, we are happy that lawmakers are responding to our continued advocacy, and that we can help represent the interest of citizens worldwide who value free speech and privacy rights.

Whether it’s at the UN, at the ballot box(new window), or in the courtroom, we are committed to ensuring that the Internet remains secure, private, and free.

Best Regards,
The Proton Mail Team

Read this blog in French at (new window)

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Richie Koch

Prior to joining Proton, Richie spent several years working on tech solutions in the developing world. He joined the Proton team to advance the rights of online privacy and freedom.

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