Exclusive:Online Safety Bill: will WhatsApp leave UK over privacy concerns if government’s new child safety law passes?

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The government has said the bill will simultaneously ensure privacy and child safety, but Matthew Feeney has argued having both is “not possible”

WhatsApp is “serious” about ditching the UK, a technology expert has warned, as he urged the government to scrap the “terrible” Online Safety Bill.

Matthew Feeney, head of technology at the Centre For Policy Studies, told NationalWorld he “wouldn’t play chicken with WhatsApp” amid reports that the popular messaging platform could soon no longer be available in the UK. The app’s head, Will Cathcart, has said he will refuse to comply with certain requirements of the proposed legislation - which means the social media site will either end up withdrawing its services or becoming banned in the UK.

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WhatsApp’s main issue is that the bill requires the weakening of its end-to-end encryption system, which protects users’ privacy and security by ensuring that only those sending and receiving messages can read them. However, the government has argued these services must be weakened in the name of child protection - so that messages “communicated both publicly and privately” can be scanned for material relating to grooming, paedophilia, and child sexual abuse images.

It comes after the National Crime Agency told NationalWorld that there are currently more than half a million people in the UK who pose a sexual risk to children. The agency said it is “detecting and reporting an increasing number of illegal images” online each year - and argued social media companies are not doing enough to protect children using their sites.

But Mr Feeney said WhatsApp’s backlash to the proposals is largely down to the fact that the Online Safety Bill would compromise its “entire business model”. He explained to NationalWorld: “WhatsApp by design makes its messages unreadable. WhatsApp without end-to-end encruption is a very different company.”

WhatsApp is “serious” about ditching the UK, a technology expert has warned, as he urged the government to scrap the “terrible” Online Safety Bill. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorldWhatsApp is “serious” about ditching the UK, a technology expert has warned, as he urged the government to scrap the “terrible” Online Safety Bill. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld
WhatsApp is “serious” about ditching the UK, a technology expert has warned, as he urged the government to scrap the “terrible” Online Safety Bill. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld | Kim Mogg / NationalWorld

The technology expert admitted that plenty of people use WhatsApp without being aware that it is encrypted - and that many would not mind if this is no longer the case. “However,” he continued, “there are plenty of people who do use the app, legally, for its encryption - whether that be journalists, government whistleblowers, or victims of crime.”

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Responding to critics who have argued that the Online Safety Bill would infringe upon privacy and freedom of speech, a government spokesperson said: “The Online Safety Bill does not represent a ban on end-to-end encryption. It is not a choice between privacy or child safety - we can and we must have both.”

But Mr Feeney has argued this is “not possible”. He explained: “There is no way to keep messages private and secure via end-to-end encryption, and simultaneously stop the bad things being communicated. In some ways, we have to be open and honest and say the price of end-to-end encryption is that terrorists, child abusers, and other criminals will find it easier to communicate.”

He added that he understands that a widely held sentiment is that compromising privacy in the name of safety is worthwhile, but argued that all of the “nuances” had not been considered. He said: “What I think people don’t appreciate is that these types of criminals are motivated, determined, and operate in highly organised circles, so will find a way to make it into darker corners of the Internet.

“So if the government pushes ahead with this, criminal activity will still continue - but millions of law abiding British citizens will have lost popular messaging apps and ways to communicate privately and securely.”

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He then highlighted the arguments of those in “civil liberty spaces”, who have suggested that the best way to target these criminals is instead via providing more funding for the police to investigate these crimes - and employing stricter law enforcement within these areas. Parents, teachers, and those who are regularly in contact with children should also be offered more support, he added.

Matthew Feeney, head of technology at the Centre For Policy Studies. Credit: Centre For Policy StudiesMatthew Feeney, head of technology at the Centre For Policy Studies. Credit: Centre For Policy Studies
Matthew Feeney, head of technology at the Centre For Policy Studies. Credit: Centre For Policy Studies | Centre For Policy Studies

One of Mr Feeney’s main concerns is that the Online Safety Bill “could set the precedent for other countries.” He explained: “This bill is terrible for privacy, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression - and there’s a concern that lawmakers around the world will go, ‘well, the UK did this, so what’s so controversial?”

He continued: “The Online Safety Bill will assume content is bad by definition - but context is crucial in a lot of this. So people who may be talking about eating disorders, mental health, and suicide, or someone who is trying to tell someone about a sexual crime that has happened to them, may end up swept up into this flagged content.”

This is similar to an argument that Mr Cathcart, WhatsApp head, gave against the bill. He remarked: “When a liberal democracy says, ‘is it okay to scan everyone’s private communications for illegal content?’, that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing.” Examples he offered included countries where it is illegal to be gay or illegal to take contraception.

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“Look,” Mr Feeney concluded, “I, and a lot of people, have a lot of sympathy for the want to make children safer online. But this bill does a lot more than that, and it has a lot of other implications. I think the government has bought into the fact that it has spent so long on this bill, that it has to just pass it, no matter how terrible it is, and I would urge ministers to re-evaluate.”

The Online Safety Bill has been a controversial piece of legislation since it was first announced and has prompted a range of different opinions. While critics are concerned about privacy, children’s charities and the National Crime Agency have praised the bill for taking long-awaited action against online child abuse.

Other supporters of the bill include the family of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who tragically killed herself after viewing self-harm content online. Her father, Ian Russell, has campaigned for better online safety since her death - but did take issue with the government’s “watering down” of the bill when it decided not to legislate against “legal but harmful” material following a debate surrounding free speech.

He expained that “legal but harmful” material is “the type of content that sapped the life force out of Molly and stopped her wanting to live any more.” However, despite his concerns, Mr Russell said what is “most important now is that the bill continues to progress at pace so that it is passed into law next year.” He added: “This is vital as it could quite literally save lives.”

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Meanwhile, seven tech companies recently published an open letter which argued that the Online Safety 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”.

Open Rights Group, which supports the letter, told NationalWorld: “You cannot scan encrypted content without compromising the security and privacy of the system. It’s impossible to scan the bad guys without also scanning the good guys.”

The group’s policy manager for freedom of expression, Dr Monica Horten, added: “This bill will require social media platforms to remove ‘illegal’ content before it is even uploaded. They will have to make their own judgements about the illegality of people’s posts without any requirement to have evidence. It is a state-mandated private policing system that we would never accept in the real world.” The Online Safety Bill is currently in the Committee Stage, being examined by peers in the House of Lords.

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