The heads of some of the world’s largest instant messaging platforms including WhatsApp, Signal, and Viber have signed an open letter to ask the United Kingdom’s government to rethink its latest legislative effort that could effectively disrupt a crucial protocol that protects the privacy of their users.
“Today we’re writing about a troubling development in the United Kingdom that everyone needs to know about”, the group of tech leaders stated referring to the widely discussed Online Safety Bill – a new law that will be entering the Committee Stage in the UK Parliament this week.
According to the letter, the UK government is trying to force these companies to “break” the end-to-end encryption (EE2E) of their messages to monitor the conversations that they have to comply with the new law’s proposed rules.
The heads of these instant messaging platforms said that, if passed, the law would give non-elected officials the power to “weaken the privacy of billions of people around the world”. The companies that signed the letter were Element, OPTF/Session, Signal, Threema, Viber, WhatsApp, and Wire.
Online Safety Bill Gives the UK Government the Right to Bypass EE2E
The Online Safety Bill proposes that these applications must create some sort of software that scan the messages exchanged by its users to flag and remove conversations and interactions where harmful topics such as child sexual abuse, cyberbullying, fraud, hate crime, and violence are being discussed.
However, the extent to which the bill will be applied to different kinds of platforms is not specific, meaning that social networks like Twitter or Instagram are being treated the same as WhatsApp and Telegram.
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No exceptions or amends have been made to the law that includes exceptions to services that offer EE2E – a key protocol that prevents bad actors and unauthorized third parties to intercept and read the private conversations that take place within these applications.
The bill gives Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s regulatory agency for all communications, almost unlimited powers to force these companies to share the contents of the private conversations that happen within their platforms without the user’s express consent.
The companies that signed the letter also commented that the legislators that back the project have said that they want to preserve the privacy of users that EE2E provides while still being able to read their conversations. “The truth is that this is not possible.”, the document asserts.
The United Nations have warned the UK government as well about the dangers that this initiative poses to the privacy of its citizens by stating that it results in a “paradigm shift that raises a host of serious problems with potentially dire consequences”.
“There cannot be a “British internet,” or a version of end-to-end encryption that is specific to the UK”, the signatories conclude.
WhatsApp and Other Services Have Threatened to Pull Out from the UK Market
WhatsApp, the instant messaging service owned by Meta Platforms (META) and other services have already warned that they will pull out their applications from the British market if the Online Safety Bill is passed without modifying the scope and reach of the text to preserve EE2E.
Meanwhile, a survey from BCS, a non-profit organization that keeps tabs on the moral and ethical challenges faced by the IT industry, indicated that more than half of the industry’s professionals are worried about the implications that the bill will have on people’s free speech within the UK.
The Committee Stage is an important phase of the legislative process where a bill is closely examined line by line by any member of the House of Lords. This stage can last a few days or weeks. Since every clause within the text has to be voted on separately, amendments can be proposed at this point to make sure that consensus is reached for each and every provision.
At this stage, amendments to the bill’s original text that include provisions that protect EE2E-powered messaging services may be proposed and ultimately included.
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