FSCI's statement on banning of Free Software apps like Element and Briar
By : FSCIPublished on: May 6, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 min
privacy federation instant-messaging statement encryption free-software matrix
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Update on 15 May 2023: Several media outlets, rights groups and Free Software projects have published articles based on this writeup to spread the word. The ones we know about are- Scroll.in, Internet Freedom Foundation, The Register, MediaNama, Mountain Valley Kashmir (print version), Tutanota and Indian Pirates. Internet Freedom Foundation has also filed RTI requests to obtain more information.
A writ petition has been filed on the matter by Praveen and Kiran on behalf of FSCI with the assistance of lawyers from SFLC.in in the Kerala High Court.
As per media reports, 14 apps including Free Software ones like Element and Briar are banned in India as of 3rd May 1. As per reports the reasoning behind the ban seems to be, “These apps do not have any representatives in India and cannot be contacted for seeking information as mandated by the Indian laws”. This statement indicates to us that there are gaps in understanding on how federated services work (see Notes section below for a detailed explanation).
There is a lack of clarity on the manner in which the ban will be implemented. We assume that the applications will be de-listed from the app stores.
Element, the company behind Element app, has put out a statement 2 explaining their position on the ban. We get to know that Indian authorities have contacted them in the past to which they have responded constructively which goes against observed reasoning for the ban. Element also had to know about the ban from media reports since there was no communication informing them of the ban.
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).
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.
There seems to be a lack of understanding on part of the government on how these P2P software as well as federated apps work. These applications have been crucial for communication during disasters and are used regularly as communication medium in workplaces.
The ban, we believe, will not serve the purpose as there are many anonymous alternate apps that can be used by terror outfits to fill their purpose.
Federated, peer-to-peer, encrypted, Free Software apps/software like Element and Briar, should be promoted. They are key to our national security as they provide means to enable sovereign, private and secure communication to citizens of India. Element has been embraced by Governments of France 3, Germany 4 and Sweden 5 which should be an example for India.
Email is federated, has existed for a long time, and the logic which they applied to banning Element would apply to K-9 Mail, a Free Software client app for email, as well. Email service is provided by many service providers like Google, Microsoft and many others who don’t have any representatives in India. Matrix, like email, is federated and is the protocol behind the service. Element is just one of the matrix clients and matrix.org is just one of the matrix service providers. Banning all instances, clients and implementations of matrix is similar to banning all email service providers, email clients and whole email infrastructure, which would be nearly impossible for the government and a new service provider and/or client can come up very easily rather quickly.
Similar to how Matrix is federated, Briar is a P2P (peer-to-peer) app which means it does not even have a service provider and users who use it need to be online concurrently. Also it does not require internet connection and can be used over a bluetooth or wireless connection. It is useful in emergency situations like natural disasters where all other media for communications become offline.
We had to share the archive links to all element.io website links since it’s already blocked by multiple ISPs in India.