WhatsApp said it would be blocked in the UK instead of weakening its encrypted-messaging system if required under the Online Safety Bill.
A request to weaken encrypted message privacy would be refused by Will Cathcart, the company’s head.
WhatsApp said it would be blocked in the UK rather than weaken its encrypted-messaging system if required under the Online Safety Bill.
The Government says both privacy and child safety are possible.
More than seven out of ten adults in the UK use WhatsApp, according to the communications regulator Ofcom.
End-to-end encryption scrambles messages, so the service company cannot view the contents.
But critics of the online safety bill say it gives Ofcom the power to require private encrypted-messaging apps and other services to adopt “recognized technology” to identify and remove child-abuse content.
Reducing the privacy of WhatsApp messages in the UK will do that for all users, Mr Cathcart said.
“Our users want global security – 98% of our users are outside the UK; they don’t want us to compromise the product’s security,” he said. And the app will accept being blocked in the UK instead.
For example, we were recently blocked in Iran and have never seen that before in a liberal democracy.
Signal president Meredith Whittaker previously told BBC News that it would “absolutely, 100% walk away” and stop providing the service in the UK if the bill is required to weaken encrypted messaging privacy. He later tweeted that he’s looking forward to working with “@wcathcart and others.”
A day later, Mr Cathcart replied: “And it is essential that we work together (and are honoured to do so) to push back.”
Asked if he wanted to go up to Signal, Mr Cathcart said: “We will not lower the security of WhatsApp, and we have never done that and accepted blocking in other parts of the world.” The UK was setting an example that others would follow, he feared.
“When a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it okay to scan everyone’s private communications for illegal content?’ It encourages countries with completely different definitions of illegal content globally to propose the same thing,” Mr Cathcart said.
Governments, and prominent child-protection charities, have long argued that encryption hampers efforts to tackle the growing problem of online child abuse.
The Home Office said tech companies must take every precaution to prevent their platforms from becoming breeding grounds for paedophiles.
Research conducted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) shows that child abuse and grooming crimes are increasing in the UK.
In response to the online safety bill, Richard Collard of the charity said platforms would be required to detect and prevent child sexual abuse. Organizations can prepare by developing technical solutions that protect users’ privacy and safety, least of all child abuse victims.
He added that “it is possible to deal with child-abuse material and decorations in an end-to-end encrypted environment, experts have shown”. According to the Government, end-to-end encryption is not banned by the Online Safety Bill.
Children’s safety and privacy are not mutually exclusive; protect must both.”
But critics say the only way to check the content of encrypted messages for child-sexual-abuse content is for services to encrypt and scan them on a device like a phone before sending them. And this client-side scanning privacy weakens encryption.
Lawyer Graham Smith tweeted: “You can argue that you don’t break the edge of a fence by digging – true, but if the intention is to infringe on private property, where does that get you? And once the hole is dug, you don’t even have a fence could.”
He also asked: “If companies install software on people’s phones and computers to scan their communications against an illegal content list, what happens if other countries come up with a different list?”
Dr Monica Horten of digital-rights campaigner Open Rights Group said: “With over 40 million users of encrypted chat services in the UK, this makes it a mass surveillance tool, with potentially damaging consequences for privacy and free expression rights.”
BBC News reported that the Information Commissioner’s Office is working closely with Ofcom to ensure that any interference with encryption is “necessary and proportionate”.
“Where less intrusive measures are available, should use them,” it said. And it supports “technological solutions that facilitate detection of illegal content without undermining privacy protection for everyone”.