The UK government has acknowledged that the controversial “spy clause” (Clause 122) of its Online Safety Bill may not be “technically feasible”
The Online Safety Bill aims to make websites and other internet–based services and platforms free from illegal and harmful material by requiring the platform owners to remove all prohibited content.
By failing to do so, these firms could face financial penalties of up to £18 million or 10% of annual revenue, whichever is greater.
The task of defining which content should be censored is controversial and onerous enough, but the Bill has grown even more contentious due to the so-called “spy clause”, which would force platforms to scan private and encrypted user messages for prohibited content.
The clause would also give Ofcom the power to issue messaging services with notices requiring them to develop and roll out software to carry out the scanning processes.
As it turns out, the technology needed to carry out the scanning without infringing on customers privacy, does not yet exist.
“Scanning is fundamentally incompatible with end-to-end encrypted messaging apps. Scanning bypasses the encryption in order to scan, exposing your messages to attackers,” said Matthew Hodgson, co-founder of Element, a decentralized British messaging app.
“If appropriate technology does not exist which meets these requirements, Ofcom cannot require its use,” said culture minister Stephen Parkinson in the House of Lords yesterday. “Ofcom cannot require companies to use proactive technology on private communications in order to comply.”
Even if the technology was available, its us would still be hugely controversial. Its detractors argue that the passing of the bill would make wider surveillance of consumers inescapable.
“You make mass surveillance become almost an inevitability by putting [these tools] in their hands,” said Alan Woodward, a visiting professor in cybersecurity at the University of Surrey. “There will always be some ‘exceptional circumstances’ that [security forces] think of that warrants them searching for something else.”
Despite this apparent win for user privacy rights, the government’s position on the clause itself remains unchanged. UK government officials have said that the government could still “enable Ofcom to direct companies to either use, or make best efforts to develop or source, technology to identify and remove illegal child sexual abuse content — which we know can be developed.”
If the bill is passed, service giants such as WhatsApp have threatened to pull out of the UK altogether.
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