The Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation that seeks assurances to keep some sites free of illegal and harmful content for U.K. jurisdiction, is facing opposition from tech and messaging giants due to its possible effects on privacy and encryption. The bill introduces clauses allowing the government to force messaging companies to scan user messages looking for harmful or dangerous content.
Online Safety Bill: Focus and Objectives
The Online Safety Bill is a piece of legislation currency being discussed in the House of the Lords, the upper house of the U.K. Parliament, that seeks to make the internet safer by establishing a new set of rules that will be enforced by Ofcom, the U.K, telecommunications regulator.
The bill, which is currently in the final stages of its approval and is expected to be approved next week without significant changes, adds a new layer of duties for different communications service providers in the U.K., including the removal of probably harmful content by the platforms, and also the requirement of age assurance for some sites.
Also, it introduces new crimes, including sending fake communications, threatening communications, and content to cause seizures. In the same way, the regulation punishes the sharing of intimate content without consent, determining criminal penalties for companies and individuals who fail to comply.
Controversy and the ‘Spy Clause’
One of the most significant controversies surrounding the implementation of this bill as it is proposed is the existence of a so-called “spy clause” that would give Ofcom the faculty to scan the data of users of messaging platforms to look for any harmful content. This has sparked massive opposition from different groups that state this might affect messaging platforms like Signal, Whatsapp, and others that use two-way encryption models to protect their users’ privacy.
These and other companies have stated in an open letter that the Online Safety Bill “poses an unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety, and security of every U.K. citizen and the people with whom they communicate around the world,” reinforcing that approving the bill as is could ” break end-to-end encryption, opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends,”
While some have celebrated the latest rollback from the U.K. government, with Stephen Parkinson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Arts and Heritage, stating that Ofcom would not force tech platforms to scan messages unless it is “technically feasible and where technology has been accredited as meeting minimum standards of accuracy in detecting only child sexual abuse and exploitation content,” the “spy clause” remains in the final revisions of the document.
Pat Walshe, a data protection professional, stressed that even after these statements, “nothing has changed in the Online Safety Bill to prevent mass surveillance of people’s communications. Powers to compel companies remains.”
What do you think about the Online Safety Bill and its possible implications for companies serving U.K. customers? Tell us in the comments section below.