Twitter’s Head of Site Integrity, Yoel Roth, said his company is seeing “governments become more aggressive in how they try to use legal tactics to unmask the people using our service” and as a way to “silence people”. (Tech Outlook). It’s a view echoed by WhatsApp CEO, Will Cathcart, who this week said his company might cease operating in the UK if the Online Safety Bill reaches the statute book in its current form. (BBC).
Mr Cathcart was talking specifically about a new, government-backed amendment to the bill that will require tech firms like WhatsApp to make their “best endeavours” to deploy new technology to identify and remove child sexual abuse and exploitation content if existing technology isn’t suitable for that purpose on their respective platforms. (Sky News).
The bill did already contain a proposal to give Ofcom – the regulator tasked with overseeing implementation of the bill – the power to require deployment of existing, “accredited technology” for that purpose. Under the new amendment, however, Ofcom will be able to demand that tech firms deploy or develop new technology to help find abuse material and stop its spread. (Guardian).
Mr Cathcart said that “what’s being proposed is that… we read everyone’s messages”, a choice of words which suggests WhatsApp is now worried Ofcom may well ask online service providers to pursue ‘client-side scanning’, a controversial surveillance method which allows providers of end-to-end encrypted communication services to automatically scan private chats, messages, texts, images, videos and speech sent from that ‘client’s’ phone for suspicious content which could then automatically be reported to the police. (BBC News).
Critics say the technology could be subject to “scope creep” once it’s installed on phones and computers, so it isn’t just used to search for illegal content. (Computer Weekly). That’s obviously a worrying possibility, not least because freedom of expression and privacy are mutually reinforcing rights.