WhatsApp and other messaging apps unite against UK’s online safety bill

A group of messaging services including WhatsApp, Signal, and Wire have united against a proposed internet safety legislation called the ‘’Online Safety Bill’’, which would require these companies to break end-to-end encryption in users’ private chats.

As reported by Reuters, the bill was originally intended to build one of the strictest regimes for overseeing social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. However, the requirement to remove ‘’legal but harmful content’’ was dropped in November in an effort to protect free speech, and the main focus was shifted to illegal content, particularly those related to children’s safety.

While the UK government denies the idea that the bill would involve banning and weakening end-to-end encryption, it still wants to give the country’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) the power to mandate the use of accredited technology or build a similar solution to detect and prevent child sexual abuse material. 

The group of messaging services, all of which offer end-to-end encryption to their users, signed an open letter on Monday, demanding the UK government to reevaluate the Online Safety Bill.

‘’As currently drafted, the Bill could break end-to-end encryption,opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists and even politicians themselves, which would fundamentally undermine everyone’s ability to communicate securely’’, the group wrote in their open letter. ‘’The Bill provides no explicit protection for encryption, and if implemented as written, could empower OFCOM to try to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services – nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users.’’

‘’The UK Government must urgently rethink the Bill, revising it to encourage companies to offer more privacy and security to its residents, not less,’’ they added. ‘’Weakening encryption, undermining privacy, and introducing the mass surveillance of people’s private communications is not the way forward.’’

Meanwhile, a government spokesperson said that they ‘’support strong encryption, but this cannot come at the cost of public safety’’.

Tech companies have a moral duty to ensure they are not blinding themselves and law enforcement to the unprecedented levels of child sexual abuse on their platforms,” the spokesperson added. “The Online Safety Bill in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption.

In August 2021, tech giant Apple also announced its plans to scan iCloud images to detect child sexual abuse material. However, after garnering criticism, it delayed the launch of its software a month after that, and eventually killed its plans in December 2022.

Written by Tuna Cetin

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