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UK Government responds to Online Safety Bill encryption concerns

Written by Thu 7 Sep 2023

The UK Government has reassured instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal that the Online Safety Bill will not weaken current encryption technology.

“We have built in strong safeguards into the Bill to ensure that users’ privacy is protected,” said Stephen Parkinson, Junior Culture, Media, and Sport Minister during a debate in the House of Lords.

Encrypted messaging service providers feared the Bill would give regulator Ofcom the authority to force the release of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services. Companies like WhatsApp and Signal warned they would leave the UK rather than submit to a requirement to weaken encryption.

Parkinson confirmed that Ofcom can only require these providers to look at encrypted messages where it is ‘technically feasible’ in detecting only child sexual abuse and exploitation content.

“Ofcom cannot require companies to use proactive technology on private communications in order to comply with these duties,” added Parkinson.

The Online Safety Bill is also expected to introduce a new obligation for online platforms to protect their users by addressing harmful content, whether it’s illegal or legal. The Bill is set to come into effect after a period of consultation.

Companies that fail to comply with these rules could face substantial financial penalties or imprisonment for executives.

Charities like the NSPCC back the Bill, with the organisation describing private messaging as the ‘frontline of online child sexual abuse’. A recent YouGov and NSPCC survey also suggested that 73% of the UK public back the new Online Safety Bill.

Threats to big tech?

A number of proposed regulations in the UK have caused a number of big tech companies to consider leaving the UK.

On top of the Online Safety Bill, the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill is also making its way through Parliament. This could give the UK’s competition watchdog statutory powers to limit big tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon.

In recent months, Ofcom has investigated the UK cloud services market amid concerns about the increasing dominance by the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. While companies like Microsoft support the Digital Markets Bill in principle, big tech companies fear that this would give too much power to a single body.

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Written by Thu 7 Sep 2023

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