Online Safety Bill passed in the UK, soon to become law

20 Sep 2023

Rishi Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street. Image: Rory Arnold (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Apple, WhatsApp, Signal and several rights groups are unhappy with the bill because of potential encryption and privacy violations.

The UK parliament has passed the long-debated Online Safety Bill to usher in what it describes as “the most powerful child protection laws in a generation”.

Lawmakers in the UK parliament held a final debate about the bill yesterday (19 September). It is set to become law soon, as the government works with communications regulator Ofcom to ensure changes are implemented “as quickly as possible”.

First drafted in 2021, the UK Online Safety Bill aims to crack down on the possession and sharing of child sex abuse material (CSAM) on popular privacy-focused messaging apps such as iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal.

It gives Ofcom the power to direct private companies to deploy certain technologies that bypass encryption – which ensures messages can only be read by the sender and receiver – and scan for CSAM on phones.

While the government argues that the added powers will prevent further distribution of CSAM and other illegal content, messaging services and some rights groups have been strongly opposed to the potential privacy violation of the move.

If social media platforms do not comply with the new rules, Ofcom could fine them up to £18m or 10pc of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest.

Companies behind big messaging services, such as Apple, WhatsApp and Signal, along with a spate of privacy rights groups, have spoken out against a provision in the Online Safety Bill that will force messaging services to compromise on end-to-end encryption.

“End-to-end encryption is a critical capability that protects the privacy of journalists, human rights activists and diplomats,” Apple said at the time, threatening to pull FaceTime and iMessage from the UK market.

“It also helps everyday citizens defend themselves from surveillance, identity theft, fraud and data breaches. The Online Safety Bill poses a serious threat to this protection and could put UK citizens at greater risk.”

UK technology secretary Michelle Donelan called the bill a “game-changing” piece of legislation that will make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.

“Our common-sense approach will deliver a better future for British people, by making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online,” she said. “It puts protecting children first, enabling us to catch keyboard criminals and crack down on the heinous crimes they seek to commit.”

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Rishi Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street. Image: Rory Arnold (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic