Messaging apps say UK Online Safety Bill will make things less safe

The heads of a bunch of messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Signal, have written an open letter imploring the UK government to urgently rethink its proposed new internet law.

Having stumbled through Parliament, the bill is set to be reviewed by the House of Lords tomorrow, which likely explains the timing of this letter, although it’s addressed to ‘anyone who cares about safety and privacy on the internet.’ The signatories represent the following companies: WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Element, OPTF, Threema, and Wire.

“As end-to-end-encrypted communication services, we urge the UK Government to address the risks that the Online Safety Bill poses to everyone’s privacy and safety,” the letter opens. “As currently drafted, the Bill could break end-to-end encryption, opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists and even politicians themselves, which would fundamentally undermine everyone’s ability to communicate securely.”

This seems to be referring to a clear intention of the bill, which is to give the government sweeping censorship powers over all digital speech and content. This apparently extends as far as hacking into people’s private, encrypted messages to check them for stuff it disapproves of. Not only is this incredibly intrusive, it would also require the creation of ‘backdoors’ into the encryption, which could then be exploited by even more malevolent actors.

“Global providers of end-to-end encrypted products and services cannot weaken the security of their products and services to suit individual governments, concludes the letter. “There cannot be a ‘British internet,’ or a version of end-to-end encryption that is specific to the UK. The UK Government must urgently rethink the Bill, revising it to encourage companies to offer more privacy and security to its residents, not less.”

BCS, otherwise known as the Chartered Institute for IT, supports the aims of the letter. “There is grave concern that the Online Safety Bill’s requirements around identifying illegal content could break the principle of end-to-end encryption with the promise of a magical backdoor,” said BCS Chief Exec Rashik Parmar. “Once a backdoor has been compromised, data and content protected by the encryption becomes accessible. This is exactly what many bad actors would welcome.”

It’s also worth noting that Twitter owner Elon Musk is apparently so appalled at government snooping and interference in the social media service prior to him buying it that he is resolved to encrypted direct messages on the platform.

Given the degree of technological and ethical illiteracy shown in the drafting of this bill and its passage through the House of Commons, there seems little hope that the Lords will understand what’s at stake. But we’d be delighted to be proved wrong and cross our fingers that the Bill is returned to the government with lots of red ink on it.


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One comment

  1. Avatar Robert Downing 19/04/2023 @ 10:02 am

    Wow! This bill is even more 1984 than I had realised.

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