UK: Online Safety Bill risks undermining privacy around the world

UK: Online Safety Bill risks undermining privacy around the world - Digital

Image by: Priscilla du Preez, Unsplash

On Wednesday, the Online Safety Bill enters the final stage of deliberation in the House of Lords. Ahead of the third reading, Barbora Bukovská, ARTICLE 19’s Senior Director for Law and Policy, commented: 

‘The Online Safety Bill has been heralded as a legislation that would make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”, including for children and vulnerable groups. Yet in the process, the Government has adopted the “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” approach: the result is a bill that actively threatens human rights in the UK, and beyond. 

‘If passed in its current form, the Bill will threaten end-to-end encryption – the foundation of secure and free communication online – by giving Ofcom the power to require companies to scan people’s private chat messages under its clause 122. The Government’s claim that it is possible to develop a technology that allows access to messages while maintaining privacy betrays its lack of understanding of the technology. The simple truth about encryption is this: it either protects everyone, or protects no one. 

‘It’s no wonder that companies like Signal and WhatsApp said they will have no choice but to leave the UK, if forced to weaken the privacy of their messaging systems under the bill. They know that magical thinking solutions don’t work – introducing backdoors into their systems and circumventing encryption would weaken the security of their products worldwide, making communications of millions of people no longer private. The same vulnerabilities that would allow law enforcement the access to private messages will be used by hostile states, criminals and other bad actors. The risk is simply not worth taking. 

‘Around the world, states already weaponise digital legislation to crack down on dissent and target groups such as LGBTQ+ people. With the Online Safety Bill, the UK will set an example for regimes looking to use digital surveillance to persecute journalists, human rights defenders and marginalised groups. The Bill risks weakening the right to privacy not only in the UK, but globally. 

‘We urge the Government to reconsider their stance and remove clause 122. At the very least, there should be a clarifying amendment to clause 122 stating that it will not be applied in a manner that could undermine end-to-end encryption.’

To find out more: 

Read a joint House of Lords briefing by ARTICLE 19, Big Brother Watch, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Liberty on the threats that the Online Safety Bill poses to private communication online. 

Read a joint letter from civil society, academics and cyber experts urging the UK to protect global digital security and safeguard private communication.