WhatsApp claims it will leave the UK but won’t weaken its encryption standard under Online Safety Bill

The CEO of WhatsApp has threatened to leave the UK if the country’s forthcoming Online Safety Bill forces it to relax its encryption requirements.

According to The Guardian, Politico, and Wired, WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart briefed reporters on Thursday and criticised the law as the most alarming set of online regulations in the Western world.

“We’ve recently been blocked in Iran, for example. But we’ve never seen a liberal democracy do that,” said Cathcart, reports The Guardian. “The reality is, our users all around the world want security. Ninety-eight per cent of our users are outside the UK. They do not want us to lower the security of the product, and just as a straightforward matter, it would be an odd choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98% of users.”

WhatsApp’s warning follows similar threats from another encrypted messaging app, Signal.

The president of Signal, Meredith Whittaker, said last month that the company “would absolutely 100 percent walk [away from the UK] rather than ever undermine the trust that people place in us to provide a truly private means of communication.”

Both Whittaker and Cathcart are addressing a clause in the Online Safety Bill that mandates businesses use “accredited technology” to check users’ communications for CSAM (child sexual abuse material). The measure doesn’t specify how these scans would be put into practise, but security experts claim it would be impossible to do so without compromising end-to-end encryption (a privacy standard adhered to by WhatsApp and Signal that means the content of a message is viewable only to the recipient and sender). The bill’s proponents dispute this.

Apple announced intentions to check users’ messages for CSAM in 2021 but shelved the initiative after receiving harsh criticism from the security community the following year. As soon as a system to scan users’ private messages is implemented, critics fear that governments will gradually pressure companies to include more types of illegal material in their scans, lowering the bar for what constitutes private communication.

It has already been said that the UK’s Online Safety Bill blurs the lines between undesirable and illegal material. The legislation’s initial draught included language requiring tech companies to control so-called “legal but harmful” material, but it was later removed. Though lawmakers and politicians continue to change the bill’s wording, it will still significantly extend the UK government’s ability to control online platforms. Later this year, the measure is anticipated to be passed.

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