The UK’s Online Safety Bill is ready to become law. The bill, which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online,” passed through the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday and imposes strict requirements on large social platforms to remove illegal content. It will be enforced by UK telecom regulatory agency Ofcom.
Additionally, the Online Safety Bill mandates new age-checking measures to prevent underage children from seeing harmful content. It also pushes large social media platforms to become more transparent about the dangers they pose to children, while also giving parents and kids the ability to report issues online. Potential penalties are also harsh: up to 10 percent of a company’s global annual revenue. The bill has been reworked several times in a multiyear journey through Parliament.
But not only does online age verification raise serious privacy concerns — the bill could also put encrypted messaging services, like WhatsApp, at risk. Under the terms of the bill, encrypted messaging apps would be obligated to check users’ messages for child sexual abuse material.
Depending on how the rule is enforced, this could essentially break apps’ end-to-end encryption promise, which prevents third parties — including the app itself — from viewing users’ messages. In March, WhatsApp refused to comply with the bill and threatened to leave the UK rather than change its encryption policies. It joined Signal and other encrypted messaging services in protesting the bill, leading UK regulators to attempt to assuage their concerns by promising to only require “technically feasible” measures. The Verge reached out to WhatsApp and Signal with a request for comment but didn’t immediately hear back.
Ofcom will “immediately begin work on tackling illegal content and protecting children’s safety” and will take a “phased approach” to bringing the Online Safety Bill into force.