The head of WhatsApp says it will pull out of the UK if the Online Safety Bill requires it to undermine its encrypted messaging service.

Will Cathcart, speaking on a visit to meet legislators to discuss the government’s flagship internet regulation – intended to combat the spread of child abuse images – said only 2% of its users are in the UK. 

The app is used by seven in 10 UK adults, according to communications regulator Ofcom. 

“The reality is, our users all around the world want security,” said Cathcart. “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.”

The Online Safety Bill is expected to grant Ofcom the power to demand encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal adopt “accredited technology” to identify and remove child abuse material.

“It’s a remarkable thing to think about,” continued Cathcart. “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.”

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Signal has also threatened to leave the UK market if it is required to allow authorities to scan user messages, with president Meredith Whittaker tweeting at Cathcart: “Looking forward to working with @wcarthcart and others to push back!”

The UK government already has the power to demand the removal of encryption via the 2016 investigatory powers act, but has never made such a request of WhatsApp, according to Cathcart.

The EU’s digital markets act defends end-to-end encryption for messaging services, he added, calling for similar language to be inserted into the UK bill. “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.”

The Home Office stated: “It is important that technology companies make every effort to ensure that their platforms do not become a breeding ground for paedophiles.

“The Online Safety Bill does not represent a ban on end-to-end encryption. It is not a choice between privacy or child safety – we can and we must have both.”

Cathcart responded: “When a liberal democracy says: ‘Is it OK to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content?’ that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing.

“If companies installed software onto people’s phones and computers to scan the content of their communications against a list of illegal content, what happens when other countries show up and give a different list of illegal content?”

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