14th March 2023 – (London) WhatsApp could face a ban in the United Kingdom, warned Will Cathcart, the head of the messaging app at parent company Meta. Cathcart stated that the U.K.’s forthcoming Online Safety Bill may compel the company to compromise the end-to-end encryption that currently secures messages on the service.
End-to-end encryption ensures that only the sender and receiver of a message can read it, with the service provider having no access. Technology companies and security experts consider it essential to protect messages from hacking and other potential threats. However, officials in the U.K. have argued that encryption should be weakened, enabling messages to be scanned for illegal content.
Cathcart expressed shock that the company may be forced into such a policy in the U.K., but claimed that the upcoming legislation lacks sufficient assurances that WhatsApp will not be coerced into compromising its users’ privacy. If the UK government required the company to weaken encryption, WhatsApp would refuse, which could potentially lead to the app being banned entirely in the country, he confirmed.
The Online Safety Bill was introduced by Boris Johnson and is currently being debated in parliament. It grants the government or regulator Ofcom the power to demand that apps scan messages for terrorist or child sexual abuse material, which would not be feasible without weakening the encryption that currently protects all messages.
Cathcart warned that if the U.K. government pushes for such changes, it could lead to other countries worldwide making similar demands. He stated that “when a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it OK to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content?’, that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing.”
The bill includes various legal grey areas that could enable regulators or the government to demand that apps weaken encryption, warned Cathcart. This has drawn criticism from WhatsApp and rival secure messaging app Signal, which has threatened to leave the U.K. entirely if such a request is made.
WhatsApp emphasised that it provides the same app globally and cannot comply with weakening encryption in the UK without doing the same elsewhere. Even if asked by the U.K. government, WhatsApp would not do so, according to Cathcart.
He declined to speculate on precisely how a possible ban would occur, but cited examples of countries such as Iran where the government has blocked the app. However, users are still able to access it using virtual private networks and other technologies that allow people to bypass restrictions.
Regardless, Cathcart stated that even if such a scenario were to arise in the UK, it would be problematic, as “I don’t know that people want to live in a world where to communicate privately to someone it has to be illegal.”
To avoid such an outcome, Cathcart urged the U.K. government to amend the bill explicitly to distinguish private messaging from other social networks and to protect encryption. He stated that although the government has acknowledged the importance of such security, it should be explicitly written into the legislation.