Encrypted messaging apps, including Whatsapp, Signal and Viber, have warned that the Online Safety Bill could lead to “indiscriminate surveillance” of people’s personal messages and called for end-to-end encryption to be protected at all costs.
The bill is intended to protect underage users on the internet by clamping down on illegal material and placing a legal responsibility on companies to monitor and remove it.
But tech companies have warned that the bill could grant the UK communications regulator, Ofcom, with broad powers to access people’s encrypted messaging apps.
“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,” the companies said in an open letter to the UK government.
The Home Office, however, responded saying the bill “in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption.”
“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,” a spokesperson for the Home Office said in a statement.
“Once the Online Safety Bill passes, Ofcom will use our powers in a way that is compatible with rights to privacy and freedom of expression,” a spokesperson for the regulator told City A.M.
“We are already working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure we can provide clarity for companies on how to achieve compliance with both safety and privacy rules,” they added.
The tech companies also expressed concern about the bill which they believe will “weaken” the privacy rights well beyond UK borders because “there cannot be a ‘British internet,’ or a version of end-to-end encryption that is specific to the UK”.
Lobby groups and charities have previously urged the government to not let encrypted messaging apps be a space where children could be subject to abuse or harmed.
“The Online Safety Bill should be seen as an opportunity to encourage companies to invest in technological solutions to end-to-end encryption that protect adult privacy and keep children safe,” the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) previously said.
Chief Executive of the NSPCC, Peter Wanless, previously called private messaging apps the “frontline of child sexual abuse.”
The bill is due to reach committee stage in the House of Lords on tomorrow.