Explained: Are days of WhatsApp and Wikipedia numbered in the UK?

Explained: Are days of WhatsApp and Wikipedia numbered in the UK?

Explained: Are days of WhatsApp and Wikipedia numbered in the UK?

How safe is WhatsApp? We all wonder. The United Kingdom has its doubts too and this has led to a stand-off between politicians and the messaging platform. There is no de-escalation on the cards, which means WhatsApp could soon disappear from the country. And it is not alone.

The UK wants to police the internet and is at loggerheads with big tech. The country is bringing in the Online Safety Bill, a landmark legislation to regulate social media giants, which has been in the works for more than four years. The bill gives Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, to impose requirements for tech companies to tackle content related to terrorism and child sexual abuse. It’s all part of the British government’s plan to make the country “the safest place in the world to be online”.

It all sounds great on paper. But some of the world’s big online companies – the Meta-owned WhatsApp and Wikipedia – have refused to comply with some of the possible requirements.

So what does that mean for the country? No WhatsApp, no Wikipedia? We take a look.

What’s the Online Safety Bill?

The Online Safety Bill touches upon every aspect of online life in the UK. It has been in the making for more than four years with eight secretaries of state and five prime ministers involved in creating a draft, according to a report in The Guardian.

The proposed bill in effect outlaws end-to-end encryption, which ensures that messages can only be read by the intended recipient. This is possible because of a secure decryption key that is unique to each sender-recipient pair and each of their messages and even the messaging service provider cannot read these exchanges.

The UK government aims to introduce the bill to make the internet safer, especially for children, by cracking down on child sexual abuse content, porn, and other material which is not age appropriate. It wants to minimise the possibility of children facing online harassment or being exposed to material that promotes suicide or self-harm, among other things.

The UK government’s proposed legislation is an attempt to make the internet safer, particularly for children. Representational picture/Reuters

The Online Safety Bill requires online platforms to let people filter out objectionable content, criminalises fraudulent ads and introduces age verification for porn sites. It wants tech companies to be more responsible and if they fail to comply they can face fines of up to 10 per cent of their global revenue, see their services blocked and their executives could face jail, reports The Verge.

The first draft of the bill was presented in Parliament in 2021 and it was 145 pages long. It is now more than 250 pages long with the table of contents comprising 10 pages.

What have tech giants objected to the bill?

Most messaging apps secure data using end-to-end encryption and say it is not possible to read user messages without breaking the promise made to users. That is something that companies say they are not willing to do.

A group of providers led by giants WhatsApp and Signal said in an open letter last month, “The bill provides no explicit protection for encryption and if implemented as written, 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.”

There is growing speculation that WhatsApp might exit the UK over the controversial bill. Reuters

Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, said that he would rather be blocked in the UK than compromise the privacy of users, adding that Western democracies were becoming autocratic and threatening people’s fundamental rights.

According to Cathcart, 98 per cent of WhatsApp users were outside the UK. He told The Guardian, “They do not want us to lower the security of the product, and just as a straightforward matter, it would be an odd choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98 per cent of users.”

Even WhatsApp’s rival Signal said that it would stop providing services in the country if the new legislation would need it to scan messages.

Wikipedia said last month that it will not comply with any age checks required under the bill. Rebecca MacKinnon, of the Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the website, says it would “violate our commitment to collect minimal data about readers and contributors”.

While the UK government insists that only services posing the highest risk to children will need age verification, a senior person at Wikimedia fears the site could be blocked in the country, according to a BBC report.

The tech industry has claimed that they cannot create backdoors in encrypted services. This would make the products vulnerable to criminals and other attackers and would allow foreign governments to spy.

Wikipedia said lasy month that it will not follow any age checks required under the Online Safety Bill. AFP

What are politicians in the UK saying?

Of course, there is a divide.

Some legislators in the UK want the government to reconsider the bill. Clair Fox, who sits in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, warned last week, “These services, such as WhatsApp, will potentially leave the UK.”

“They have a system that works for billions of people all around the world. A relatively small market such as the UK is not something for which they would compromise their billions of users around the world,” she added.

WhatsApp and Signal said last month that the bill did not provide protection for encryption. AFP

However, the UK Home Office, which is responsible for security and law and order, said that strong encryption “cannot come at the cost of public safety”. “Tech companies have a moral duty to ensure they are not blinding themselves and law enforcement to the unprecedented levels of child sexual abuse on their platforms,” the department spokesperson said.

“The online safety bill in no way represents a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption.”

Is there a mid-way?

Finding a compromise might not be easy as both the UK and the tech giants remain adamant.

As the bill progresses through the House of Lords, the government is hoping that the tech giants will give in. “The government’s hope is that companies will blink first in the game of chicken and give them what they want,” Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrat peer who worked as Meta’s head of policy for a decade until 2019, told The Guardian, as he called the approach as one of “intentional ambiguity”.

While MPs backing the bill do not want it to be amended in favour of big tech, POLITICO reports that the UK department for science, innovation and technology wanted to find a way through the row and is having talks “with anyone that wants to discuss this with us”.

For now, the future of WhatsApp and other messaging services in the UK remains bleak.

With inputs from agencies

Read all the Latest News, Trending NewsCricket News, Bollywood News,
India News and Entertainment News here. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.