WhatsApp will risk being banned in the UK to save encryption

10 Mar 2023

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The UK’s online safety bill in its current form will expand the government’s powers to demand the removal of end-to-end encryption, raising privacy concerns.

Meta has said it will not comply with any UK law that wants WhatsApp to remove end-to-end encryption.

WhatsApp head Will Cathcart, who is on a visit to the UK to meet with legislators ahead of proposed changes to the Online Safety Bill, made some widely reported comments that established the Meta-owned company’s stance on the controversial proposals.

“It’s a remarkable thing to think about. There isn’t a way to change it in just one part of the world,” a Guardian report quoted him saying of the proposed changes that would expand the UK government’s powers to legally require messaging apps to moderate content at the expense of privacy.

While the UK government already has the power to demand the removal of encryption following a 2016 law, WhatsApp has never been legally asked to do so.

However, Cathcart thinks the Online Safety Bill is in a legislative “grey area” that would make it impossible to comply without removing end-to-end encryption altogether.

“Some countries have chosen to block it: that’s the reality of shipping a secure product. We’ve recently been blocked in Iran, for example. But we’ve never seen a liberal democracy do that,” Cathcart added.

According to Cathcart, it would not makes sense for WhatsApp to remove end-to-end encryption from its platform only for the UK – a market that he said only accounts for around 2pc of users.

“It would be an odd choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98pc of users.”

Puts privacy ‘in grave jeopardy’

Technically, this could amount to WhatsApp being banned in the UK if neither side decides to budge. However, WhatsApp isn’t the only messaging app that has a problem with the proposed bill.

Signal, a privacy-focused messaging service and WhatsApp competitor, is also taking a strong stand against UK legislators.

According to its president, former Google manager Meredith Whittaker, the Online Safety Bill in its current form “puts the future of privacy and expression in grave jeopardy”.

“As written, the bill contains provisions that are positioned to undermine encryption, and could create an unprecedented regime of mass surveillance that would all but eliminate the ability of people in the UK to communicate with each other outside of government interference,” she said.

“Encryption is either broken for everyone, or it works for everyone. There is no way to create a safe backdoor.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic