Here is what’s going on with the UK’s Online Safety Bill

18 Apr 2023

Image: © FellowNeko/

A strongly worded letter from Big Tech leaders has criticised the Online Safety Bill. It said the law would force companies to break encryption.

Representatives from several Big Tech companies including Meta, Signal, Threema and Viber have called on the UK government to “urgently rethink” the Online Safety Bill that is currently being considered by parliament.

The bill is due to be examined in detail at committee stage tomorrow (19 April). Ahead of this, a number of tech leaders teamed up to sign an open letter asking the UK government to reconsider the bill.

The letter was published on WhatsApp’s blog yesterday (17 April). It was signed by Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at Meta; Ofir Eyal, CEO, Viber; Martin Blatter, CEO, Threema; Matthew Hodgson, CEO, Element; Alex Linton, director, OPTF/Session; Meredith Whittaker, president, Signal; and Alan Duric, CTO, Wire.

The signatories claimed that the bill poses a threat to UK residents’ privacy and safety. They are concerned that the bill will jeopardise end-to-end encryption. WhatsApp previously said it would support being banned in the UK to save encryption.

“The UK government is currently considering new legislation that opens the door to trying to force technology companies to break end-to-end encryption on private messaging services,” the post said.

The open letter was addressed to “anyone who cares about safety and privacy on the internet”.

According to the signatories, if the bill is passed into law it could give an unelected official “the power to weaken the privacy of billions of people around the world”.

“We don’t think any company, government or person should have the power to read your personal messages and we’ll continue to defend encryption technology.”

The signatories said they would advocate for pushing back against what they called the “misguided parts of this law” that would potentially jeopardise people’s online safety and privacy.

“It is not too late to ensure that the bill aligns with the government’s stated intention to protect end-to-end encryption and respect the human right to privacy,” the signatories said. They claimed that the bill’s current wording provided “no explicit protection for encryption” and that this could empower Ofcom, the UK government’s communications watchdog, to force the scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted chat services – such as WhatsApp and Signal.

The open letter also pointed out that the bill could embolden hostile governments to draft copy-cat laws undermining citizens’ privacy.

The signatories said that the UN had also criticised the bill, adding that even the UK government itself had acknowledged that the text of the bill posed privacy risks due to its possible interpretation.

A UK government official told the BBC that it was possible to have both online privacy and online safety. Many of the bill’s proponents want it to grant Ofcom the power to monitor those who share child abuse imagery and other criminal content on messaging forums.

“We support strong encryption,” the government official told the BBC, “But this cannot come at the cost of public safety.

“Tech companies have a moral duty to ensure they are not blinding themselves and law enforcement to the unprecedented levels of child sexual abuse on their platforms.

“The Online Safety Bill in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.