Once again we see bureaucrats with a poor understanding of how modern technology works deny ordinary people their right to privacy, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12).
This time it’s India, where Element is one of 14 messaging apps blocked by the Central Indian Government which – we believe from media reports – relates to Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Element is a small company, so we concentrate our Legal, Compliance and Trust & Safety functions in the UK. We will, of course, respect local laws where we are obligated to and have always made it clear that we cooperate with authorities where required by law. As we understand it, Indian government officials claim to have approved the ban due to Element (and other apps) not having representatives in India.
That is a bit of guesswork on our part, because we did not receive any prior notice of the decision; clarification from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology would be most welcome.
While Element never compromises end-to-end encryption or user privacy, we have been contacted by Indian authorities in the past and addressed them in a constructive fashion (typically responding same-day). Indeed our Trust & Safety team works with governments to build safer secure communications for everyone; while ensuring user privacy and protecting end-to-end encryption.
As much as people in India will be able to trivially circumvent the blocking of the 14 messaging apps, we want to resolve this situation and be available as usual in India. That resolution will have to be, of course, in a way that respects our users and understands our commitment to everyone’s right to private and secure communications. We look forward to talking with the Ministry about how to make that happen.
Delisted for being decentralised?
We assume that this ban on Element is a result of a misunderstanding around decentralised and federated services such as Matrix (an open standard for real time communication). The Element app is just one of many apps that give access to the Matrix network. A simple parallel is that banning Element because it gives access to the Matrix network is the equivalent to blocking Google Chrome because it gives people access to the web, or Gmail because it gives people access to email.
Some governments see undermining encryption as the most effective way to combat the ills of terrorism or other illegal behaviour. That approach is completely flawed; it just removes ordinary people’s ability to communicate in private which leaves them vulnerable to all types of surveillance, crime and subjugation.
In actual fact, end-to-end encryption strengthens national security which is why Element has various parts of the French, German, Swedish, UK and US governments as customers.
Undermining end-to-end encryption is an attack on people’s basic human right to privacy and security of communications. Rather than accept that as a cost to pay, we look to preserve and protect those rights, and to work with governments, journalists, non-profits, academic researchers and the rest of the tech industry to rise to the challenge of reducing those harms.
So, as always, we will proactively engage with the authorities – in this case the Central Indian Government – to champion the importance of secure and private communications. The right to private communication is an essential part of democracy, and protects against oppressive regimes. Technology should protect those rights, not destroy them.