WhatsApp and Signal, two of the most popular encrypted messaging apps, have refused to comply with the UK’s Online Safety Bill if required to weaken their privacy features. WhatsApp’s head, Will Cathcart, stated that the company would rather be blocked in the UK than undermine its encrypted messaging system, which scrambles messages so even the company running the service cannot view the contents. Signal’s president, Meredith Whittaker, previously stated that the app would stop providing services in the UK if required by the bill to weaken the privacy of its encrypted messaging system.
The Online Safety Bill grants Ofcom the power to require private encrypted messaging apps and other services to adopt “accredited technology” to identify and remove child abuse material. The government argues that it is possible to have both privacy and child safety, and prominent child protection charities support the bill’s aim of ensuring technology companies make every effort to prevent their platforms from becoming a breeding ground for paedophiles.
However, critics argue that the bill would require services to scan messages on a device such as a phone before they are encrypted and sent, undermining the privacy that encryption provides. Dr. Monica Horten of the Open Rights Group stated that the bill could turn encrypted chat services into a mass-surveillance tool with potentially damaging consequences for privacy and free-expression rights. The Information Commissioner’s Office, which is working with Ofcom, stated that any interventions that could weaken encryption must be “necessary and proportionate” and supported technological solutions that facilitate the detection of illegal content without undermining privacy protections.
WhatsApp is the most popular messaging platform in the UK, used by more than seven in 10 adults who are online, according to communication regulator Ofcom. If WhatsApp and Signal refuse to comply with the Online Safety Bill, the UK could set an example for other countries to follow. Mr. Cathcart stated that if liberal democracies say it is okay to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content, other countries with different definitions of illegal content may propose the same thing.