WhatsApp would not remove end-to-end encryption for UK law, says chief

Meta’s head of chat app says it would not comply with the requirements set out in online safety bill

WhatsApp would refuse to comply with requirements in the online safety bill that attempted to outlaw end-to-end encryption, the chat app’s boss has said, casting the future of the service in the UK in doubt.

Speaking during a UK visit in which he will meet legislators to discuss the government’s flagship internet regulation, Will Cathcart, Meta’s head of WhatsApp, described the bill as the most concerning piece of legislation currently being discussed in the western world.

He said: “It’s a remarkable thing to think about. There isn’t a way to change it in just one part of the world. Some countries have chosen to block it: that’s the reality of shipping a secure product. We’ve recently been blocked in Iran, for example. But we’ve never seen a liberal democracy do that.

“The reality is, our users all around the world want security,” said Cathcart. “Ninety-eight per cent of our users are outside the UK. 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% of users.”

“End-to-end” encryption is used in messaging services to prevent anyone but the recipients of a communication from being able to decrypt it. WhatsApp cannot read messages sent over its own service, and so cannot comply with law enforcement requests to hand over messages, or pleas to actively monitor communications for child protection or antiterror purposes.

The UK government already has the power to demand the removal of encryption thanks to the 2016 investigatory powers act, but WhatsApp has never received a legal demand to do so, Cathcart said. The online safety bill is a concerning expansion of that power, because of the “grey area” in the legislation.

Under the bill, the government or Ofcom could require WhatsApp to apply content moderation policies that would be impossible to comply with without removing end-to-end encryption. If the company refused to do, it could face fines of up to 4% of its parent company Meta’s annual turnover – unless it pulled out of the UK market entirely.

Similar legislation in other jurisdictions, such as the EU’s digital markets act, explicitly defends end-to-end encryption for messaging services, Cathcart said, and he called for similar language to be inserted into the UK bill before it passed. “It could make clear that privacy and security should be considered in the framework. It could explicitly say that end-to-end encryption should not be taken away. There can be more procedural safeguards so that this can’t just happen independently as a decision.”

Although WhatsApp is best known as a messaging app, the company also offers social networking-style features through its “communities” offering, which allows group chats of more than a 1,000 users to be grouped together to mimic services such as Slack and Discord. Those, too, are end-to-end encrypted, but Cathcart argued that the chances of a large community causing trouble was slim. “When you get into a group of that size, the ease of one person reporting it is very high, to the extent that if there’s actually something serious going on it is very easy for one person to report it, or easy if someone is investigating it for them to get access.”

The company also officially requires UK users to be older than 16, but Cathcart declined to advise parents whose children have an account on the service to delete it, saying “it’s important that parents make thoughtful choices”.

The online safety bill is expected to return to parliament this summer. If passed, it will give Ofcom significant new powers as the internet regulator, and enable it to require effective content moderation under the penalty of large fines.


Alex Hern

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Signal app warns it will quit UK if law weakens end-to-end encryption
Boss of messaging app says users’ trust at risk from powers in online safety bill to impose monitoring

Dan Milmo Global technology editor

24, Feb, 2023 @5:28 PM

Article image
Crime agencies condemn Facebook and Instagram encryption plans
Global alliance including NCA and FBI says Meta’s decision to encrypt direct messages could harm children

Alex Hern Technology editor

20, Apr, 2023 @11:24 AM

Article image
Minister refuses to rule out changes to UK online safety bill
Social media bosses who breach child safety rules may face jail if Ofcom given powers to prosecute

Kiran Stacey and Dan Milmo

13, Jan, 2023 @9:59 AM

Article image
WhatsApp could disappear from UK over privacy concerns, ministers told
‘Intentional ambiguity’ over end-to-end encryption in online safety bill could lead to messaging app being withdrawn

Alex Hern and Dan Milmo

08, May, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
WhatsApp to allow users to edit messages … but only for 15 minutes
Messaging app’s new feature will enable altering of messages after sending

Dan Milmo Global technology editor

22, May, 2023 @5:38 PM

Article image
Fine tech companies that fail to protect children, Labour says
Party would establish new standalone internet regulator if it came to power in next election

Jim Waterson Media editor

06, Feb, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
Porn sites are not doing enough to protect children, warns Ofcom
Regulator publishes first report into video-sharing platforms and says few put child safety before profits

Alex Hern

20, Oct, 2022 @11:29 AM

Article image
TikTok could face £27m fine for failing to protect children’s privacy
Investigation finds video-sharing app may have breached UK data protection law between 2018 and 2020

Mark Sweney

26, Sep, 2022 @2:28 PM

Article image
Covid contracts: inquiry to look into use of WhatsApp, says ICO
Information commissioner confirms Lord Bethell’s use of messaging app will be investigated

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

10, Aug, 2021 @11:02 AM

Article image
Tories will struggle to turn desire to regulate internet into policy | Jim Waterson
Matt Hancock wants to rein in internet excess – just don’t ask him how it will work in reality

Jim Waterson Media editor

20, May, 2018 @5:03 PM