The UK government has denied its stance on the controversial Online Safety Bill has changed despite admitting that the technology to access messages without compromising user privacy does not currently exist.
The bill has come under intense scrutiny from tech companies as it seeks to override encryption to scan online messages sent in the UK in order to detect criminal activity.
However, in a statement in the House of Lords on Wednesday afternoon the government conceded that it would only issue a notice to scan a provider when it is “technically feasible” to do so.
Andy Yen, chief executive of encrypted mailing service Proton, deemed the statement “ambiguous” and emphasised the need for legal backing to ensure its reliability.
“As long as there is no explicit clause in the law, it doesn’t change the future possibilities of a government changing its mind and interpretation could differ,” he explained.
Communication providers like Proton, Whatsapp and Signal have threatened to leave the UK if the bill passes in its current state as they refuse to compromise on user privacy.
“It’s not a bluff” said Yen, who believes privacy is paramount for the UK to remain a functioning democracy.
Final amendments to the bill were made on Monday, paving the way for its likely passage in its current form.
Matthew Hodgson, chief and co-founder of end-to-end messaging tool Element, said the statement was “nonsense” and a delay tactic by the government.
“Scanning is fundamentally incompatible with end-to-end encrypted messaging apps.
“All ‘until it’s technically feasible’ means is opening the door to scanning in future rather than scanning today. It’s not a change, it’s kicking the can down the road,” he added.
Similarly, Paul Holland, chief executive of another encrypted email service Beyond Encryption, said the government’s conclusion was “inevitable”.
“It was abundantly clear to all those with knowledge of encryption that the government’s proposals were unworkable and the Online Safety Bill put them on a collision course with encrypted messaging services.”
However, the government said its position on the matter remains unchanged.
“Our stance on tackling child sexual abuse online remains firm, and we have always been clear that the Bill takes a measured, evidence-based approach to doing so.
“As has always been the case, as a last resort, on a case by case basis and only when stringent privacy safeguards have been met, it will enable Ofcom to direct companies to either use, or make best efforts to develop or source, technology to identify and remove illegal child sexual abuse content – which we know can be developed.”