Home Messaging apps may leave UK over encryption demands

Messaging apps may leave UK over encryption demands

After years of debate and criticism, the UK’s Online Safety Bill has finally become law.

According to an Oct. 26 TechRadar report, the bill received Royal Assent on October 26th, 2023, marking the last step in the legislative process before it goes into effect. However, tech experts and civil liberty groups remain deeply concerned about the implications this far-reaching regulation may have on internet freedoms and privacy.

The Online Safety Bill aims to make the Internet safer, especially for children, by imposing new obligations on social media platforms, search engines, and other digital services. Companies like Facebook, TikTok, and Google will now have a legal “duty of care” to protect users from harmful content online.

The 300-page bill forces tech firms to proactively identify and remove illegal content like child sexual abuse, revenge porn, hate speech, harassment, and terrorism. Companies face huge fines of up to £18 million or 10% of their global revenue — whichever is higher — if they fail to comply. The bill also requires platforms to offer optional tools for adults to filter out legal but potentially harmful content.

In addition, tech companies must verify users’ ages, enforce age limits, and prevent children from accessing inappropriate content. Parents will have the right to see what information companies hold on their children and demand it be deleted. The bill also creates new criminal offenses, such as cyberflashing and sharing AI-generated pornographic imagery.

Threats to Encryption and Privacy

While the intentions behind the bill may be well-meaning, digital rights advocates argue some provisions fundamentally threaten encryption and could lead to increased government surveillance.

Clause 122 of the bill grants authorities the power to access and read encrypted messages to detect illegal content. However, the government has postponed implementing this “spy clause” until the capability to implement it is developed.

Tech experts warn that building “backdoors” into encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal would undermine privacy and security for all users. It could allow criminals and hostile states to exploit those backdoors themselves.

Many encrypted services like Proton and Element say they are unwilling to comply with decryption demands, arguing it violates the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens. Some companies are even threatening to pull their services out of the UK market entirely rather than undermine their encryption standards.

Matthew Hodgson, CEO of secure messaging app Element, said his company is adding contractual clauses promising they will never agree to implement client-side scanning mandated under the Online Safety Bill in order to reassure customers.

There are also concerns that under the vague definitions in the bill, tech companies may end up over-censoring legal speech and political dissent out of fear of steep penalties. Handing tech firms direct content moderation orders could allow the government to indirectly control online discourse.

While the goals of improving child safety and reducing cybercrime are admirable, digital rights advocates urge policymakers to tread carefully. They argue the far-reaching requirements under the Online Safety Bill could end up doing more harm than good by opening dangerous loopholes in encryption and enabling increased government surveillance and censorship powers over the internet.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Screen Post; Pexels; Thank you!

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Radek Zielinski
Tech Journalist

Radek Zielinski is an experienced technology and financial journalist with a passion for cybersecurity and futurology.

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