UPDATED 21:14 EST / MARCH 09 2023


WhatsApp tells the UK it would rather be blocked than adhere to the Online Safety Bill

Meta Platforms Inc.’s chat app WhatsApp says it will not compromise end-to-end encryption, and since that’s required in the U.K. under the new Online Safety Bill, it might mean the end of its existence in the country.

Will Cathcart, Meta’s WhatsApp boss, said today that he will not weaken the app’s encryption, so if he can’t find a way past this after talking with the U.K.’s legislators, the country’s most loved chat app will be gone. WhatsApp is by far the most popular chat app in the U.K., used by seven out of 10 adults.

Cathcart added that the new measures the U.K. is imposing — ostensibly to prevent child abuse material being sent over the internet — is one of the worrying pieces of legislation on the planet right now, considering it might be adopted elsewhere. The legislation could mean WhatsApp either agrees to mass surveillance by removing end-to-end encryption when asked, or Meta faces the possibility of being fined 4% of its annual revenue.

“The reality is, our users all around the world want security,” said Cathcart. “Ninety-eight percent of our users are outside the U.K. They do not want us to lower the security of the product, and just as a straightforward matter, it would be an odd choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98% of users.”

The messaging app Signal is similarly concerned, saying it won’t adhere to the new rules and stating in a post today that the bill puts the “future of privacy and expression in grave jeopardy.” Signal didn’t mince its words, saying online safety actually means an “unprecedented regime of mass surveillance.” The company said it won’t wait to be blocked but will pull put out beforehand.

Most privacy advocates would agree with the companies. The Open Rights Group called the bill the “most worrying piece of legislation ever imagined to date.” No one denies that child abuse material is a very serious issue, but privacy advocates and most people with any common sense realize this legislation, which could become very attractive to other nations, is about surveillance of the masses, not a culling of a disturbed minority.

“When a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it OK to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content?’ that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing,” said Cathcart, adding that this kind of thing is expected in authoritarian regimes, not liberal democracies.

The U.K. has been called out for a burgeoning authoritarianism a lot of late, considering its Public Order Bill restricts the right of people to protest. This bill has been called “authoritarian” and “an assault on British liberty.” The Online Safety Bill is no different, according to its many detractors. The U.S.-based nonprofit Internet Society summed the bill up as “draconian and authoritarian-style censorship.”

“It is important that technology companies make every effort to ensure that their platforms do not become a breeding ground for pedophiles,” the British Home Office said, adding that the bill won’t mean the end of end-to-end encryption, only when the government says it shouldn’t be there. Cathcart and Signal both responded that you either have it or you don’t. A lawyer explained to the BBC today, if you have a fence and there’s a gaping hole under it, then you “might as well not have the fence.”

Photo: Alexander Shatov/Unsplash

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