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Protecting Free Speech with Encrypted Messengers

19th of August, 2015

There is much to be said about encrypted messengers. For us, encrypted messengers are powerful tools that protect the privacy of our conversations. They afford us the security to know that the information, ideas, and thoughts we share remain with the people we intended to share them with. On the other hand, there are many who see encrypted messengers are a serious security threat. Unfortunately, we live in a world that hosts many people whose intentions that are very different from yours and mine. For them, encrypted messengers can be a powerful tool for planning and circumventing government security while planning a disastrous event.


To some governments the threat is so imminent that they look to ban encrypted messengers all together. We saw this just earlier this year when the UK was looking to ban any instant messaging services with their Investigatory Powers Bill. For them, the threat of plotted terrorist attacks is much greater than this kind of individual privacy.

However, I believe it is important to take the discussion of encrypted messengers beyond our western society. As a group, we fight tooth and nail for our right to express ourselves freely and to hold opinions, thoughts, and beliefs that can either go along with societal norms or drastically oppose them. While many of us are willing to disregard our privacy rights, it is not the case with other freedoms which are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we revere the very documents on which they are written. But as we sit in our position of Western privilege, there are others that do not live in the world we do, but rather in a world where the right to privacy and free speech are inextricably bound.

This article examines the need for encrypted messengers outside of western society and how these communication devices are used as a tool to fight oppressive government regimes. Going further, this article highlights one specific messaging tool that has created a messenger that can hopefully counteract the oppression that plagues over a billion people.


China’s Censorship


There are many examples we could look at when it comes to encrypted messenger censorship. Pakistan hit media outlets last month as they are planning to ban Blackberry’s encrypted messaging service by the end of this year. The reason for the ban, like many other countries, is security; The Globe and Mail reports on more on the story.


However, in this article we will look at the biggest global example of censorship: China. If you are unfamiliar with the censorship issues that plague China, take a look at the video below outlining China’s censorship laws by TestTube News.

ZDNet continued this discussion when they reported last week on China’s new and more stringent censorship of instant messaging applications. According to the report, China’s new regulations would limit the messaging of news and current events to government outlets or government approved institutions. In addition, the regulations state that users need to register with their real names. WeChat, the largest instant messenger service in China, complied with the new regulations put forth, banning 400 accounts deleting around 1000 articles according to ZDNet. Ironically, the first sentence of WeChat’s Privacy Policy says, “We value your privacy”. This to me is more absurd than WeChat choosing to comply with Chinese regulations in the first place. Complying with government regulations is a part of business, but in this case it has turned WeChat’s Policy, a document many of us take at face value, into a laughable composition of words.




The next question in our minds should be, “if government is trying to restrict free speech, where can users turn?” Our answer, like the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters of last October, is FireChat. Reported on by the CBC last year, protesters gathered in areas around Hong Kong and turned to FireChat in response to threats of having cell networks shut down.


FireChat is a great app by Open Garden that allows users to communicate with each other without the need for internet or cellular connections. FireChat does this by connecting phones to create it’s own mesh network in which messages and pictures can travel; the short video below by Open Garden explains more.

In this video we hear about FireChat’s private messaging feature that allows users to send encrypted messages to one another that remain private until reaching the end receiver. This was not a feature available to last years protesters, but rather an innovation of FireChat’s from last month, as reported by TechCrunch.


Now users facing government censorship can send private encrypted messages to each other without the need for internet or cellular connections controlled by government institutions. The free speech implications Open Garden has created with their application appears to be immense, and like we learned from Open Garden’s video, the more users on FireChat, the more powerful the grid will become.    

About Ryan Jeethan

Ryan is a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Arts & Business program focusing on UW’s unique Speech Communication program. 

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