Just as freedom of speech cannot be an absolute right — the line has to be drawn at shouting “fire” in a theatre when there isn’t one — the right to privacy, even in a democracy, comes with a string or two attached.
Under Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. That is a protection much needed, given the tendency of government and private sector bureaucracies — again, even in democracies — to pry arbitrarily wherever and whenever they think they can get away with it. The refusal, however, of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to heed the worries voiced by many of the company’s shareholders at their annual meeting about his determination to press ahead with full end-to-end message encryption by default on all of its platforms — including Instagram and WhatsApp — highlights yet again the challenges facing police and intelligence services charged with preventing and detecting crimes as grave as paedophilia and terrorism.
Full end-to-end encryption guarantees privacy and
improves protection users have from hackers; messages can be read only by senders and recipients. But it also creates safe spaces for child abusers and terrorists. Not only would it make the work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies more testing than it already is, it would also diminish the ability of social media companies to find and remove from their platforms illegal content and activity.
Mr Zuckerberg has accepted that bad people do bad things on social media, and he has admitted that Facebook has made “too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools”. Given that in 2019 there were almost 17m reports of child sexual abuse material online with more than 94% coming from Facebook, he could hardly point to success in making his platforms crime-free zones. But he has as yet failed to understand that his resolve to persist with full message encryption will blind his company and police forces to serious law-breaking.