- WhatsApp, along with rival Signal, have united against the proposed Online Safety Bill (OSB) by the UK government, which they say could undermine the average UK citizen’s privacy and security.
- In an open letter, they said,”…if implemented as written, [the OSB] could empower Ofcom to try to force the proactive scanning of private messages on end-to-end encrypted communication services, nullifying the purpose of end-to-end encryption as a result and compromising the privacy of all users.”
- The OSB was proposed to try and improve internet safety, with many concerned about harmful content and its effects such as unfiltered access to adult sites by children, hate speech and internet fraud.
- However, many have also expressed concern about the effects it could have on free speech. The OSB proposes to ‘restrain the publication of lawful but hateful speech’, which would effectively create a new form of censorship.
- The OSB also does not provide explicit protection for end-to-end encryption – a technology that prevents anyone from seeing a message except the intended recipient – which could theoretically allow Ofcom free and unlimited scanning and monitoring of private messages whenever they deem it necessary.
Censorship by proxy
The OSB, whilst well-intentioned, should never be allowed to pass in Parliament.
It represents, fundamentally, the death of online privacy and an increase in censorship under the guise of ‘safety’.
This issue, compounded by further controversy about the limits of protest – which many believe to be an attack on the right to protest itself – is clearly indicative of the current government’s train of thought which, at worst, is not unlike dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the past and present.
It would, in theory, be a ‘soft’ version of the Chinese political model, whereby the state knows all at all times and clamps down on dissent against it immediately.
The only difference would be the justification of having those powers.
The UK’s justification for wanting to curtail certain online liberties is in the name of safety. In other words, because crimes may occur online, nobody should have total digital autonomy.
It may seem logical and reasonable, but both recent and older history should remind us of the consequences of trusting governments blindly.
This is not to suggest that pro-privacy activists are advocating for unrestrained anarchy and lawlessness online but, unfortunately, the sad reality of this situation is that it opens the floodgates for mass surveillance.
Once states have unlimited access to its citizens’ private digital lives, society effectively becomes a Big Brother-like police state.
It runs the risk of those powers being abused by the authorities. The justification for surveillance would broaden from legitimate issues (such as organised crimes) into anything that the government deems to be ‘a risk’.
Then, all the government would have to do is weaponise the legislation against certain protests and political lobbies that it does not like. It would become farcical at best and authoritarian at worst.
At its core, the OSB is incompatible with liberal democracies. Any legislation that can be used to restrict (without moral or ethical justification) or entirely remove rights such as free speech and privacy simply cannot be allowed to pass in Parliament.
Of course, these aren’t the only issues that the OSB will bring. Citizens would be at the mercy of the state’s interpretation of media, messages and information.
Many online companies who refuse to comply with it could be forced to remove its services from the UK entirely, which would have effects on the economy, academia, art, media and other industries.
An example of this is that Wikipedia could become inaccessible to UK users if issues with the OSB arise, according to The Guardian.
WhatsApp does not look to be calling the UK’s bluff and will uphold their threat to withdraw their services, which would be a political disaster for MPs, who use it as their main source of communication.
Public scrutiny could also be a factor as the perception of the OSB seems to be illiberal and impractical, having no purpose but to waste the time of policymakers and law enforcement whilst undermining certain freedoms.
The OSB is expected to come into force by 2024, with campaigns against it becoming more frequent and intense.