WhatsApp would rather be banned in Britain than have its security weakened under new landmark UK government internet legislation, the messaging platform boss has warned.
Will Cathcart, WhatsApp’s head of meta, said he would refuse to comply with the online security bill if he tried to ban “end-to-end” encryption.
Speaking ahead of a meeting with UK lawmakers to discuss the bill, he described the bill as the most concerning legislation currently being discussed in the western world.
End-to-end encryption secures messages by scrambling them and ensuring that only those who send and receive them can read them.
WhatsApp cannot see messages sent through its own service and therefore cannot comply with requests from law enforcement to turn them over for counter-terrorism purposes or to identify and remove child pornography, for example.
Stand-off: WhatsApp would rather be banned in Britain than have its security weakened under new flagship UK government internet legislation, the messaging platform boss has warned
Will Cathcart (pictured), the head of WhatsApp at Meta, said the popular messaging service would refuse to comply with the Online Safety Bill if it tried to ban ‘end-to-end’ encryption.
The UK government insists that it is possible to have both privacy and child safety.
But Mr Cathcart said breaching the privacy of WhatsApp messages in the UK would do so to all of its users globally.
WHAT IS THE ONLINE SECURITY BILL?
Hailed as groundbreaking tech industry regulation, the online safety bill’s aim is to introduce rules on social media and other sites based on user-generated content that require them to remove the illegal material from their platforms, with a particular focus on child protection. harmful content.
In addition, the biggest platforms – such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – will have to tackle named forms of “legal but harmful” content, which could include issues such as promoting self-harm or disorder. food.
Under the bill, all targeted platforms will have a duty to find and remove illegal content, as well as put in place clear and strong terms and conditions.
Companies that break these new rules face fines of up to billions of pounds for the most important services or risk being blocked.
All of this would be overseen by communications regulator Ofcom, which is set to become the sector’s new regulator.
It’s a remarkable thing to think about. There is no way to change it in just one part of the world,” he said.
“Some countries have chosen to block it: this is the reality of shipping a secure product. We were recently blocked in Iran, for example. But we have never seen a liberal democracy do that.
Mr Cathcart added: “The reality is that our users around the world want security.
“Ninety-eight percent of our users are outside of the UK. They don’t want us to reduce product security, and quite simply, it would be an odd choice for us to choose to reduce product security in a way that would affect those 98% of users. ‘
The Online Safety Bill has made its way through Parliament since it was released in draft form in May 2021.
It is designed to help crack down on online trolling and illegal forms of pornography by bringing more accountability to the platforms people use.
As part of this, it allows the UK government or regulator Ofcom to require companies to scan the content of messages sent through their platforms for illegal content.
However, this would likely force them to weaken or remove their own security measures.
The government has insisted that the bill “does not represent a ban on end-to-end encryption” and that “we can and must have” both privacy and child safety.
But it also does not explicitly state how it would be possible to monitor the content of the messages and pursue their encryption, creating a “grey area”.
The Investigative Powers Bill, passed in 2016, already gives authorities the power to require apps to start scanning messages for illegal material, but they have yet to do so with WhatsApp. .
Mr Cathcart openly criticized the Online Safety Bill in September, saying it was “puzzling” that governments wanted to weaken security, not strengthen it.
WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption on all messages, scrambling them so they can’t be read by anyone other than the intended recipient
The upcoming legislation has also drawn criticism from Signal, another high-security messaging app.
He told the BBC he would ‘leave’ the UK if he felt compelled to weaken his privacy measures as a result.
Tech companies believe that encryption is key to keeping users’ trust that their data is secure and not susceptible to hacking.
Mr Cathcart said that as WhatsApp is used around the world, allowing UK authorities to reduce the app’s security would mean they would have to do the same for other countries.
He added: ‘When a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it okay to scan everyone’s private communications for illegal content? This emboldens countries around the world that have vastly different definitions of illegal content to offer the same thing.
“If companies installed software on people’s phones and computers to scan the content of their communications against a list of illegal content, what happens when other countries come along and give a different list illegal content?
Therefore, he urges the UK government to add language that differentiates private messaging apps from other social networks.
Instead of just making statements about the importance of encryption, he said they should put in writing that encryption will be protected in the online security bill.
Mr Cathcart said: “This could make it clear that privacy and security need to be considered in the framework.
“He could say explicitly that end-to-end encryption should not be removed.
“There may be more procedural safeguards so that it cannot happen independently as a decision.”
The number of crimes involving child abuse images has increased by 66% in five years
The number of crimes involving child abuse images reported to police has increased by two-thirds in just five years, the data shows.
Children’s charity the NSPCC said there were 30,925 recorded offenses of sharing or possessing indecent images of children in 2021-22 – a record high.
Just five years earlier, the figure was 18,574, meaning the numbers jumped 66%.
The charity, which obtained UK-wide police data under freedom of information laws, said the 2021-22 figure included almost 10,000 cases in which social media or a game site was used to distribute the illegal images.
Of these, Snapchat was registered 4,293 times, Facebook 1,361, Instagram 1,363 and WhatsApp 547, he said.
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