WhatsApp is used by 40.41 million people in the UK as of May 2021, according to Statista. In 2022 its position as a popular messenger service became even stronger, with many businesses turning to the platform.
And while the app prides itself in high security standards, they are not exactly what the Government has in mind for the UK’s future.
The nation’s favourite messaging service uses ‘end-to-end encryption’ (E2EE) which makes it technologically impossible for the app to read user messages without fundamentally breaking their promises to them. But these vows do not comply with the Government’s Online Safety Bill that gives Ofcom the power to impose requirements for social networks to use technology to tackle terrorism or child sexual abuse content.
Following the demands outlined in the bill basically means WhatsApp would have to break promises given to users which the company is not willing to do.
While both sides are steadfast in their position, the time for a compromise is running out putting over 40 million Brits at risk of losing their favourite messaging app.
What is Online Safety Bill and why doesn’t WhatsApp comply with it?
Online Safety Bill is a vast piece of legislation that will touch on almost every aspect of online life in Britain. More than four years in the making, it is progressing through the House of Lords, is more than 250 pages long.
According to the documents that was been widely criticised both locally and internationally, Ofcom is granted the right to demand social networks to use technology to tackle terrorism or child sexual abuse content, with fines of up to 10% of global turnover for those services that do not comply. Companies must use ‘best endeavours’ to develop or source technology to obey the notice.
But as WhatsApp secures its data with ‘end-to-end encryption’ (E2EE), it is impossible for them to access, read and share user messages with Ofcom or any law enforcement agency without breaking their promises to users. They vowed to leave things as they are, which calls the future of the popular messaging app in the UK into question.
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What is the probability that WhatsApp will leave the UK?
A coalition of providers, including the market leaders WhatsApp and Signal, released an open letter last month where it warns that Online Safety Bill ‘provides no explicit protection for encryption’ and that if implemented as written, it ‘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.’
WhatsApp’s chief Will Cathcart vowed to choose to protect the security of their non-UK users as 98% of their overall subscribers are outside the UK. The company admitted that ‘it would be an odd choice’ to choose to ‘lower the security of the product’ in a way that would affect the majority.
A Home Office spokesperson said:
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.
They insist that Online Safety Bill ‘in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption’. They suggest that ‘Ofcom will be able to direct platforms to use accredited technology, or make best endeavours to develop new technology, to accurately identify child sexual abuse content, so it can be taken down and the despicable predators brought to justice.’
Discussions are still ongoing but there are no indications of what the outcome will be.
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–The Guardian: WhatsApp could disappear from UK over privacy concerns, ministers told
– Messenger People: WhatsApp usage in the UK