The UK’s Online Safety Bill is a contentious law that will affect big tech and private individuals alike. Aside from being the center of much political debate, the act has been harshly criticized by privacy advocates. Signal, an encrypted messaging service with roughly 40 million users, has said it will shut down UK operations if the bill undermines end-to-end encryption.
Despite being touted as a child protection measure, critics say the measure will ultimately undermine citizens’ right to private conversations. The legislation also includes provisions for big tech companies to remove legal but “harmful” content in order to shield adult users. Without clear definitions of what constitutes “harmful” content, the law could easily lead to arbitrary and widespread internet censorship in the United Kingdom, of all places.
What Is the Online Safety Bill?
The UK’s Online safety Bill was first proposed by Boris Johnson and is currently going through parliament. It’s set to come into force in autumn of 2023. The act will impact citizens’ ability to communicate privately and place the burden of enforcement on relevant tech and communications companies.
The law will also create new criminal offenses, including a “false communications offense.” Naturally, people are concerned about who determines what’s “false,” and whether the vague formulations might enable the UK government to leverage it for corrupt purposes.
The bill may also require online service providers to use government-approved software to search through user content deemed related to terrorism or child abuse. Starting to sound totalitarian?
Signal Ready to Walk If Bill Undermines Encryption
Signal, a private messaging service, said it will “absolutely, 100% walk” if the bill undermines its ability to use encryption. At present, parliament is debating whether the online safety measure should allow the government to bypass encryption using device-side scanning. This capability would enable the UK government to snoop on citizen communications as it pleases.
Meredith Whittaker, Signal’s president, commented on the act saying it was “magical thinking” to believe we can have privacy but “only for the good guys.” She went on to say that “encryption is either protecting everyone or it is broken for everyone.”
Signal isn’t the only messaging service to express outrage over the law’s implications, Meta’s WhatsApp also said it would leave the UK rather than compromise its encryption.
Child Protection Measure Or Covert Surveillance Program?
The hype around the UK’s Online Safety Bill rings bells of familiarity. It bears a family-resemblance to the US Patriot Act which was enforced as an anti-terrorism measure after 9/11. The act allowed the US government to spy on citizens without warrants and without seeking judicial permission.
Despite being touted as an anti-terror measure, decades later, evidence shows that the Patriot Act damaged democracy and privacy, rather than helped catch any terrorists whatsoever.
The Online Safety Bill uses an obvious appeal to emotion by proclaiming an immediate need to protect children. However, we can only hope it doesn’t become the UK version of the Patriot Act. It remains to be seen whether the government will leverage the measure for political purposes or genuinely use it to prevent pedophilia.
It’s difficult to ignore the irony of the last decades’ wealth of pedophilia accusations against members of British parliament and royalty, including the famous Epstein-related allegations against Prince Andrew. But Prince Andrew wasn’t the first accusee, not to mention the fact that his case never made it to trial.
In 2014, The Washington Post reported on a “big political cover-up” of a pedophile-ring in the UK parliament. The Independent covered a similar story of a Tory MP warning of “big, big names” involved in a government-level UK pedophile ring.
This begs the question of whether the UK is trying to make amends for its alleged past of nefarious activity or divert blame by pointing the finger outward. One can hope this isn’t part of an internet surveillance scheme that will ultimately diminish citizens’ privacy.
What Will the Online Safety Bill Mean For UK Citizens?
As of yet, it’s difficult to tell exactly how the Online Safety Bill will affect citizens. With big tech companies taking the brunt of responsibility for removing “harmful” content, it could lead to many social media accounts shut down on arbitrary grounds.
Without a clear definition of “harmful,” it’s possible ruling party’s could use it as a tool to censor diverse political ideology and censor criticism.
If the bill undermines end-to-end encryption, private messaging companies like Signal and WhatsApp may stop operating in the UK rather than compromise one of their core features. In an era of UK Online Safety, the government would effectively be able to spy on citizens’ private conversations at its leisure.
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