WhatsApp: messaging app could disappear from UK phones over privacy concerns in Online Safety Bill

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The government are warning that end-to-end encryption on the app could see WhatsApp being withdrawn from the UK

Popular messaging app WhatsApp could disappear from UK phones if they do not comply with the new online safety bill. The UK government has warned that options for the end-to-end encryption app are running out fast and could see WhatsApp withdrawn from the UK altogether.

The Online Safety bill is a new piece of legislation that will cover most online services in the UK. The bill has taken over four years to produce and is currently progressing through the House of Lords at around 250 pages long.

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If the bill is passed, it will give television and radio regulator Ofcom the power to impose requirements for social networks. It is hoped the bill will tackle terrorism, child sexual abuse content and fake review factories on social media platforms.

There will be fines of up to 10% of a companies global turnover for services that do not comply with the potential new regulation. Companies will need to be able to prove they are using their “best endeavours” to obey the notice.

However, with the online safety bill, messaging apps that secure user data with end-to-end encryption it will be technologically impossible to read user messages without breaking their user promise. WhatsApp have said that this is a step they will not take with their app.

In an open letter last month, WhatsApp alongside other market leaders said: “The bill provides no explicit protection for encryption” before adding “and if implemented as written, could empower Ofcom to try to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to end encrypted communication services, nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users.”

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WhatsApp has shared that if the online safety bill came into action that the company would choose to protect the security of their non-UK users. Will Cathcart, WhatsApp’s chief, told the Guardian in March: “They no 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.”

Member of the House of Lords, Claire Fox told the house last week: “These services such as WhatsApp, will potentially leave the UK.” It comes as legislators have called on the government to take the concerns more seriously, with Claire Fox adding: “This is not like threatening to storm off. It is not done in any kind of pique in that way. In putting enormous pressure on these platforms to scan communications, we must remember that they are global platforms.

WhatsApp could disappear off UK phones if the company do not comply with the Online Safety BillWhatsApp could disappear off UK phones if the company do not comply with the Online Safety Bill
WhatsApp could disappear off UK phones if the company do not comply with the Online Safety Bill | leriostereo - stock.adobe.com

“They have a system that works for billions of people all around the world. A relatively small market such as the UK is not something for which they would compromise their billions of users around the world.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office told the Guardian: “We support strong encryption, 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.

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“The online safety bill in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption.

“Where it is the only effective, proportionate and necessary action available, Ofcom will be able to direct platforms to use accredited technology, or make best endeavours to develop new technology, to accurately identify child sexual abuse content, so it can be taken down and the despicable predators brought to justice.”

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