Meta-owned WhatsApp is willing to see its messaging app blocked in the UK rather than weaken its encryption.
Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at Meta, told The Telegraph that if the Government’s new Online Safety Bill compels the firm to stop end-to-end (e2e) encryption, it may have no choice but to shut down WhatsApp in the country.
The Online Safety Bill, which returned to the House of Commons on 5th December, gives law enforcement the power to read conversations that are encrypted on platforms like WhatsApp.
“The Bill provides for technology notices requiring communication providers to take away end-to-end encryption – to break it,” Cathcart said.
“The hard reality is we offer a global product. It would be a very hard decision for us to make a change where 100% of our users lower their security.”
Around 2 billion people use WhatsApp globally, including 40 million users in the UK – many government ministers among them.
E2E encryption means only the sender and receiver can view the contents of a message. Authoritarian regimes including China, Syria and Qatar have prohibited the use of WhatsApp for this reason, while users in the UAE are blocked from making video calls.
Ministers in the UK and child safety advocates have voiced concerns that the rising popularity of encrypted messaging systems like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp make it more difficult to identify online abuse.
The UK Government has said that the Online Safety Bill may, as a last option, grant Ofcom – the telecommunications regulator – the authority to require private messaging apps to employ ‘very accurate’ technology to scan public and private channels for child sexual abuse content.
However, Cathcart and other proponents of free speech contend that maintaining encryption is essential to protecting personal privacy, and that doing away with it could enable mass surveillance by government agencies.
“So far it has just been authoritarian countries that have banned it. We feel the best trade-off is to offer a secure service for all people that do have access to it – and to accept that in some countries we are banned,” Cathcart said.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last month, security experts and human rights groups expressed their concerns about the danger the Online Safety Bill presents to end-to-end encryption.
The letter’s signatories said that since UK residents and companies now rely more heavily than ever on E2EE to secure themselves, the Government must ensure the Bill does not impair encryption in private communications.
One of the proposed powers in the Onine Safety Bill – which Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan reintroduced into Parliament last week – would give regulators the ability to punish major tech companies with billions of pounds in fines for breaking the law.
Earlier this year, the European Commission also unveiled measures aimed at addressing the massive volumes of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) uploaded to the internet every year. The proposed measures call for further safeguards to protect children from online predators and harmful content on the internet.
Under the proposed rules, tech firms might be asked to detect both new and previously identified CSAM, as well as potential instances of grooming. The measures, if they become law, will apply to online hosting services and interpersonal communication services, such as messaging apps, internet service providers and app stores.
A government spokesman told The Telegraph: “We support strong encryption but it cannot come at the expense of protecting children from exploitation. End-to-end encryption cannot be allowed to hamper efforts to catch perpetrators of the most serious crimes.
“Ofcom will have a power under the Online Safety Bill to, where necessary and proportionate, direct platforms failing to tackle child sexual abuse to take action. We remain committed to continuing to work with the tech industry to develop innovative solutions that protect public safety and privacy.”
There has been no word of increased resources for Ofcom to tackle its proposed new role.