Encrypted messaging apps urge for changes to the UK Online Safety Bill

April 18, 2023 / Alex Linton

Nobody but you has the right to read your personal messages. You deserve to have your privacy, dignity, and safety protected and respected both online and in the real world.

The UK's Online Safety Bill presents poses a threat to end-to-end encrpytion and privacy online for all British people. In the age of copy-cat legislation, this kind of regulation could ripple throughout the rest of the world if left unchecked.

This is about your human rights. It is about privacy. It is about consent.

Today, we are joining hands with other messaging apps around the globe who work tirelessly to protect you and your freedoms and implore Parliament to change to the Online Safety Bill.

To anyone who cares about safety and privacy on the internet.

As end-to-end-encrypted communication services, we urge the UK Government to address the risks that the Online Safety Bill poses to everyone's privacy and safety. It is not too late to ensure that the Bill aligns with the Government's stated intention to protect end-to-end encryption and respect the human right to privacy. 

Around the world, businesses, individuals and governments face persistent threats from online fraud, scams and data theft. Malicious actors and hostile states routinely challenge the security of our critical infrastructure. End-to-end encryption is one of the strongest possible defenses against these threats, and as vital institutions become ever more dependent on internet technologies to conduct core operations, the stakes have never been higher.

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 Bill provides no explicit protection for encryption, and if implemented as written, could empower OFCOM to try to force the proactive scanning of  private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services - nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users. 

In short, the Bill poses an unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of every UK citizen and the people with whom they communicate around the world, while emboldening hostile governments who may seek to draft copy-cat laws. 

Proponents say that they appreciate the importance of encryption and privacy while also claiming that it's possible to surveil everyone's messages without undermining end-to-end encryption. The truth is that this is not possible.  

We aren’t the only ones who share concerns about the UK Bill. The United Nations has warned that the UK Government’s efforts to impose backdoor requirements constitute “a paradigm shift that raises a host of serious problems with potentially dire consequences”. 

Even the UK Government itself has acknowledged the privacy risks that the text of the Bill poses, but has said its “intention” isn’t for the Bill to be interpreted this way.

Global providers of end-to-end encrypted products and services cannot weaken the security of their products and services to suit individual governments. There cannot be a “British internet,” or a version of end-to-end encryption that is specific to the UK.

The UK Government must urgently rethink the Bill, revising it to encourage companies to offer more privacy and security to its residents, not less. Weakening encryption, undermining privacy, and introducing the mass surveillance of people’s private communications is not the way forward. 

Signed by those who care about keeping our conversations secure:

Matthew Hodgson, CEO, Element 

Alex Linton, Director, OPTF/Session

Meredith Whittaker, President, Signal 

Martin Blatter, CEO, Threema

Ofir Eyal, CEO, Viber

Will Cathcart, Head of WhatsApp at Meta 

Alan Duric, CTO, Wire

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