WhatsApp Tells UK Government It’s Still Not Willing To Undermine Its Encryption

from the don't-make-me-tap-the-sign dept

The UK government is entertaining even more plans to undermine (or actually outlaw) end-to-end encryption. And it’s not gaining any support from the multiple services (and multiple people) these efforts would harm.

Both Signal and Proton have made it clear they’ll pull their services rather than weaken their encryption to comply with UK government demands. WhatsApp is saying the same thing — telling the UK government something it has already told it at least twice.

In 2017, WhatsApp made an unofficial announcement of its policies when UK law enforcement showed up with a demand to compel decryption of a targeted account. WhatsApp refused to comply and the UK government apparently decided not to press the issue. At least not directly.

Five years later, the UK government is still hammering away at encryption, adding more mandates to its steadily simmering Online Safety Bill. And WhatsApp told the UK government what it told it back in 2017: breaking encryption just isn’t an option. (In the form of a lawsuit challenging an Indian law, WhatsApp said the same thing to the Modi administration and its series of rights-violating internet-related laws.)

Another year has passed and the UK government still wants to get the Online Safety Bill passed. And, once again, Meta has surfaced to tell the government that it can pass all the laws it want, but none of them will force WhatsApp to undermine its encryption.

WhatsApp would refuse to comply with requirements in the online safety bill that attempted to outlaw end-to-end encryption, the chat app’s boss has said, casting the future of the service in the UK in doubt.

Speaking during a UK visit in which he will meet legislators to discuss the government’s flagship internet regulation, Will Cathcart, Meta’s head of WhatsApp, described the bill as the most concerning piece of legislation currently being discussed in the western world.

The UK government doesn’t have any leverage here. WhatsApp will simply stop offering its service in the UK. As Cathcart points out, 98% of its users reside in other countries. And there’s no reason it should put all of its users at risk, just because the home to 2% of its user base is being stupid about end-to-end encryption.

Now, that 2% would probably like to have access to an encrypted messaging service, whether it’s WhatsApp, Signal, or Proton’s offering. Unfortunately for them, supporters of the bill don’t want them to have these options. But that’s not going to work out well for the government. Angering constituents tends to shift the leverage back their way, which means legislators are pushing a terrible bill from a position of weakness.

The potential for hefty fines only makes it more likely service providers will exit this market rather than give the government what it wants.

Under the bill, the government or Ofcom could require WhatsApp to apply content moderation policies that would be impossible to comply with without removing end-to-end encryption. If the company refused to do, it could face fines of up to 4% of its parent company Meta’s annual turnover – unless it pulled out of the UK market entirely.

If the options are providing a weakened service that harms all users or shelling out 4% of its income on a regular basis, the option these legislators failed to consider is really the only intelligent option: exiting the market.

And when that starts happening, the government is going to get an earful from the people it never bothered to listen to in the first place: domestic users of services these legislators are actively trying to destroy.

Filed Under: , ,
Companies: meta, whatsapp

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “WhatsApp Tells UK Government It’s Still Not Willing To Undermine Its Encryption”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

The government will get alot of voters protesting if meta has to close down apps or services in the uk, people uses these services to have privacy and
protect themselves from hackers, they are used by business,s ,ngos not just individuals ,
making laws similar to hong kong,china, russia is not a good look for a so called democratic western government .
the problem is most people dont know about this law ,unless they read tech blogs .its not being discussed in the english media

RyunosukeKusanagi (profile) says:

my prediction is that the bill will become law, and an encryptionless internet will be implemented, and then everything will be a hot mess, then they will either repeal the law (hopefully the likely outcome as users become absolutely PISSED about the whole idea), or they will faf about blaming the other party and having Brussles getting involved (again).

PaulT (profile) says:


“an encryptionless internet will be implemented”

Not going to happen. It’s all fun and games while people are pretending it only applies to “big tech” (by which people mean a specific subset of social media sites they have a beef, usually with for stupid reasons).

If they came close to trying to mandate actual encryption-free operation across the board, that would threaten banks and so many major industries so hard that the idea would be killed in an instant and the minister who tried actually mandating it removed from office.

As soon as the focus changes from “Facebook are being meanies because they won’t change the laws of mathematics to make our lives easier” to “no encryption places everyone who does business in the UK at risk, best avoid the place”, the conversation will quickly change as well.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

And when that starts happening, the government is going to get an earful from the people it never bothered to listen to in the first place: domestic users of services these legislators are actively trying to destroy.

There’s another party that the government is going to get an earful from as well: government users of those services. The bureaucrats will find that their now-unecrypted communications are more subject to intercept or extraction, causing additional liability.

And the spooks will set up their own encrypted communications apps … information about which will get leaked, drawing further attention to them. Lame justifications will pour forth. It might even get a rise out of the public, who were denied their own encryption.

OGquaker says:

The Forth: a confused premise

The loss of WhatsApp, Signal, or Proton’s service in the UK serves the goals of the Peers: no pesky encryption. Whether or not the pork bellies care or not is of no consequence to the Lords.

Pork bellies’ futures are to be bet on, for or against, or sold for the Lords breakfast.
The secret English debate in 1944 was whether to use gas


or fry with Napalm

Biden signed off on $130b in New hydrogen warheads & new ICBMs. The Forth is a four-letter word

Anonymous Coward says:

Screw the apps, what about hardware such as Apple cell phones? Is the peerage willing to give up their Apple-branded toys, because they sure as shit are just as secure as any software app, if not more so.

How are they going to make every person currently living in GB turn in their Apple phones, and then make sure that every last one of them obeyed? I can just imagine Customs at the entry point – “Sir, you need to give us your Apple phone for the duration of your visit.” Can you spell “severe drop in tourism, the likes of which we haven’t seen since WWII”. (Here we’re ignoring the attendant problems of who foots the bill for a replacement phone, and the knock-on cost of interruptions to business while all this is going on.)

Yes, yes, I’ve now given them the idea. Or so you might think – I’d bet a lot of money that encrypted apps are only the first step, that outlawing hardware encryption is already in the works.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Doesn’t matter. If a service serves UK users then the bill will apply to them. It doesn’t matter if they have offices or servers there or not.

The bar for the bill to apply to a company is if it’s used by a single UK user and if they don’t comply then OFCOM can request their service be blocked in the UK.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...