The head of WhatsApp says the messaging app will leave the UK if it is forced to weaken its encryption standards under the country’s forthcoming online safety law.
“For example, we were recently blocked in Iran. But we’ve never seen a liberal democracy do that,” said Cathcart The protector. “The reality is that our users around the world want security. Ninety-eight percent of our users are outside the UK. They don’t want us to lower the security of the product, and it would be a strange choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98% of users.”
“For example, we were recently blocked in Iran. But we have never seen a liberal democracy do that.”
WhatsApp’s warning follows similar threats from another encrypted messaging app, Signal. Signal’s president, Meredith Whittaker, said last month that the company would “run absolutely 100 percent [away from the UK] rather than ever undermining the trust people place in us to provide a truly private means of communication.
Both Whittaker and Cathcart are responding to a provision in the Online Safety Bill that requires companies to use “accredited technology” to scan user posts for child sexual abuse material or CSAM. The bill doesn’t say how these scans would be implemented, but security researchers say they are impossible to implement without breaking end-to-end encryption (a privacy standard adhered to by WhatsApp and Signal, meaning that the content of a message visible only to the recipient and sender). Supporters of the bill deny this.
Apple revealed plans to scan user messages for CSAM in 2021, but dropped the project the following year after continued criticism from the security community. Critics warned that once a system is introduced to scan users’ private messages, governments will slowly force companies to add more forms of banned content to their scans, eroding private communication standards.
The UK’s online safety law has already been criticized for its vague distinction between illegal and unwanted content. The legislation originally required technology platforms to moderate what it called “legal but harmful” content, but removed this language of last November’s draft. As it stands, the bill will still dramatically expand the UK government’s powers to moderate online platforms, although politicians and legislators continue to tweak the wording. The bill is expected to pass later this year.