India bans open source messaging apps for security reasons. FOSS community says good luck
One banned tool is already working on Android-to-Android meshes that survive internet outages
India's government has reportedly banned 14 messaging apps on national security grounds, including some open source services.
News of the move appeared in local media last week, citing government sources for news that apps including Element, Wickrme, Mediafire, Briar, BChat, Nandbox, Conion, IMO and Zangi were banned on the recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Ministry cited risk of terrorism in the region of Jammu and Kashmir – a majority Muslim territory administered by India but also claimed by Pakistan.
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India accuses Pakistan of backing independence activists in the region – and imposed years-long connectivity restrictions that meant only 2G services were available – on the grounds that it made it harder for separatists to organize.
This latest crackdown targets messaging apps India reportedly believes could be used by separatists to plan attacks without authorities being able to intercept their chatter. That's the logic India nearly always uses – indeed, that just about any government uses – when shuttering networks or banning content and apps.
But the Free Software Community of India – a collective of FOSS users and developers – has taken issue with the banning of peer-to-peer open source messaging apps, such as Briar.
The Community cited reports that India banned the two services because they do not have in-country representatives who can be held legally accountable for activity conducted with the apps. It points out that's a slightly ridiculous position given FOSS relies on decentralized collaboration.
"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 community argued in a blog post.
"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."
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And of course the source code for FOSS projects is readily available – thus the name – making bans on an app the first move in a likely futile game of whac-a-mole, rather than an effective enforcement tool.
As timing would have it, the Briar project's blog last week detailed the project's efforts to build mesh networks out of Android devices during internet outages – so that messages can continue to flow even if the internet is down.
"When an Android device thinks that its internet connection doesn’t work, either due to a captive portal or due to certain Google domains being unreachable, apps on the device are still able to connect to IP addresses that remain reachable, and the device can still resolve DNS queries for other domains," the blog stated on May 4. "Even though various parts of the UI indicate that the system considers the Wi-Fi connection to be offline, the system does not seem to block any traffic as a result of this assessment."
"For our project, this is good news: it means that even when access to the global internet is blocked, it should still be possible to communicate with other devices on local networks or national subsets of the internet. While other mechanisms could still influence the ability to form mesh networks, the Android operating system itself doesn't seem to get in our way."
In other words: "You want to block Briar? Go ahead and try." ®