Securing free speech

Securing free speech
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This year, Matter. is hoping to invest in teams working on easy-to-use secure communications. It’s a new area for us, but online security and freedom from surveillance have never been more important, both for media and society. Freedom from surveillance means the freedom to speak your mind, freedom to share the sensitive information that is the lifeblood of journalism, and freedom to hold those in power to account.

Our mission is to help create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society by investing in the next generation of media institutions. That means, in part, supporting platforms that keep journalists and vulnerable voices safe.

Secure spaces are at the heart of healthy journalism — and at the heart of freedom of speech.

In 2013, the whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked proof that the NSA was broadly and illegally intercepting global telecommunications, including of Americans. His revelation shocked the world, rippling through global politics, business, and technology.

When Snowden originally contacted journalists about his leak, he knew he was putting his life in danger. If his messages were intercepted by the wrong people, he might be arrested without them ever reaching the public. Security was crucial.

Laura Poitras, one of the journalists, later recounted:

“If I wasn’t already up to speed with using encryption, this leak might never have happened. It was necessary.”

Encryption is a mathematical technique for making information unreadable. You can share the obscured data however you want, because unless you have the digital key to unlock it, it’s meaningless. This is important because by default, most internet communication is insecure: anyone can intercept an email, an instant message, or your website browsing activity. By encrypting a message, you ensure only your intended recipient can read it.

Chilling effects

Not only does this kind of security help protect whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, but it actually helps protect freedom of speech itself.

Following his revelations, the number of Wikipedia searches for terrorism-related topics fell significantly, according to a new study by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Jon Penney. People were worried they would end up on a list for reading the wrong information. These weren’t terrorists looking for information about making bombs: they were ordinary citizens looking to inform themselves, who were now afraid of being watched and labeled. As Penney remarked: “If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

This study isn’t alone. PEN America found that writers were “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” A study by Wayne State University found that “the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion” on platforms like Facebook.

This is a well-known phenomenon called a “chilling effect”: people are less likely to use their right to free speech if they believe they are being judged and monitored. Surveillance threatens the right to free expression; it threatens the safety of journalistic sources; it threatens diversity of opinion. In other words, it is a threat to democracy itself.

Thomas Jefferson said that “the only security of all is in a free press.” Journalism is core to democracy. However, while our third President understood its importance, the forty-fifth has been turning up the heat, calling it “the enemy of the American people”. The result is that while we rely on journalists to inform us as an electorate, they and their sources are subject to unprecedented chilling effects. We become less well-informed, and less able to make reasoned decisions at the voting booth.

Security tools for journalism

SecureDrop, from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, has been making it safer for information to be shared with journalists. As CNBC reported earlier this month:

Since the tempestuous U.S. election cycle last year, demand for SecureDrop, one of the primary encryption platforms employed by news outlets to securely facilitate leaks has “absolutely exploded,” according to Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation which is behind the tool.

Our partners are some of the world’s most prominent media institutions. Many of them are SecureDrop users. For all of them, protecting sources, facilitating varied points of view, and delivering accurate information without fear of interference are meaningful endeavors.

Day-to-day security

At Matter., we use the encrypted communications tool Signal every day, both to chat informally, and to share information with each other. Our default is to use it whether information is sensitive or not. That way we don’t have to think about whether to make a message secure: it just is, by default.

This security means that sensitive information can’t be revealed. For journalists, this ensures that sources can’t inadvertently be made public — even under a court subpoena, as the Justice Department discovered last year.

It’s not just whistleblowers and vulnerable individuals who need this level of security. More and more businesses like ours are depending on encrypted communication to keep their sensitive information secure. This is creating a sizable market for human-centered, useable tools that keep your communications safe — and there just aren’t enough of them.

Secure startups

The technical instructions for setting up tools like SecureDrop are daunting, particularly for smaller organizations. More accessible tools are badly needed. While individual tools like Signal are pretty good, there is an obvious need for more platforms with its level of usability: secure email is notoriously difficult to use, for example, and there’s no obvious tool for secure group communications. And while the Tor network protects web browsing activity, it — along with most secure platforms — is difficult to use with the mobile devices that are now used for the majority of internet activity.

There’s room for so much more. To speak truth to power, protect community spaces, and amplify vulnerable voices, secure platforms are essential.

The seeds of the next great media institutions will be planted this year by courageous entrepreneurs who make the leap to build ventures that speak truth to power, close the empathy gap, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

Applications for Matter close on April 3rd. If you’re building platforms that allow people to easily share information securely, you should apply today. We need you.

Matter is an SF & NYC-based startup accelerator and venture capital firm grounded in the principles of design thinking that supports early-stage media entrepreneurs and mission-aligned media institutions building scalable ventures that make society more informed, inclusive, and empathetic.

Our mission has never been more important than it is today. We are looking for scrappy entrepreneurs inspired to make real change. Our next cohort starts on June 5th. Apply now.

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