Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, has stated that the company will not comply with the proposed online safety bill in the United Kingdom (UK), which aims to ban end-to-end encryption. Cathcart made these remarks during a visit to the UK, where he will meet with legislators to discuss the government’s internet regulation flagship policy. He further described the bill as the most concerning piece of legislation being discussed in the western world.
Cathcart explained that users worldwide demand security, and 98 per cent of WhatsApp’s users are outside the UK. Therefore, it would be an odd choice for the company to lower the product’s security in a way that would affect the majority of its users. He added that end-to-end encryption is essential in messaging services to prevent anyone other than the communication recipients from decrypting it. WhatsApp cannot read messages sent over its service and cannot comply with law enforcement requests to hand over messages or actively monitor communications for child protection or anti-terrorism purposes.
Cathcart noted that the online safety bill is an expansion of the UK government’s power to demand the removal of encryption, and it poses a grey area in the legislation. He called for similar language to be inserted into the UK bill as in the EU’s digital markets act, which explicitly defends end-to-end encryption for messaging services.
Furthermore, under the proposed bill, the UK government or Ofcom could require WhatsApp to apply content moderation policies that would be impossible to comply with without removing end-to-end encryption. If WhatsApp refused to comply, it could face fines of up to 4 per cent of its parent company Meta’s annual turnover, or it would have to withdraw entirely from the UK market.
Cathcart argued that large communities that use end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp’s “communities” offering, which allows group chats of over 1,000 users to be grouped together, have slim chances of causing trouble. He suggested that one person reporting any serious issues would suffice, making it easy for investigators to gain access.
The online safety bill is expected to return to parliament in the summer, giving Ofcom significant new powers as the internet regulator and enabling it to require effective content moderation under the penalty of large fines. WhatsApp has never received a legal demand to remove encryption from the UK government, according to Cathcart.
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