Ministers in the UK government have been warned that they are at risk of becoming embroiled in a dispute with WhatsApp over the proposed online safety bill, which could lead to the messaging app being removed from Britain. The legislation will extend to almost every aspect of British online life, and gives Ofcom the power to impose requirements for social networks to use technology to address terrorism or child sexual abuse content, with the potential for fines of up to 10% of global turnover.
However, messaging apps using end-to-end encryption (E2EE) argue that it is impossible to read user messages without breaking the promise of privacy to users. The bill offers no explicit protection for encryption, according to the coalition of providers, and may lead Ofcom to attempt proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services, thereby compromising the privacy of all users.
According to WhatsApp’s chief, Will Cathcart, if forced to make a decision, they would prioritize the security of their non-UK users. Cathcart explained to the Guardian in March that 98% of WhatsApp’s users are located outside of the UK, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to compromise the security of the product for the vast majority of their users who don’t want it to be lowered. Therefore, it would be an unusual choice for WhatsApp to lower the security of the product in a way that would impact those 98% of users.
The messaging apps’ objections have been taken seriously by UK legislators, with some warning that the passage of the bill could lead to these companies pulling their services out of the UK market. The UK government has countered that while it supports strong encryption, it cannot come at the expense of public safety. It argues that tech companies have a moral obligation to ensure they are not ignoring the unprecedented amounts of child sexual abuse content on their platforms.