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UK government leaves out message scanning from Online Safety Bill – EURACTIV.com | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing


Following an eleventh-hour concession on the UK’s Online Safety Bill, the British government decided not to scan messages for harmful content until it is ‘technically feasible’ without compromising users’ privacy.

The initiative mirrors the EU’s Digital Services Act in its focus on moderating online content and platform responsibility and was set to have its third reading in the UK Parliament on Wednesday (6 September).

One of the controversial parts of the Bill was the so-called ‘spy clause’. Experts have emphasised this would make end-to-end encryption impossible in the country.

End-to-end encryption keeps communications secure by ensuring that only the party who sent the message and the one who received it can access it. In other words, no third party is involved, not even the service provider.

Messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal, which use this technology, said they would pull their services out of the UK should the bill go through. Potentially breaking encryption has berockyen at the heart of the controversy ever since the introduction of the EU draft law aimed at detecting and removing online child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

Junior Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Stephen Parkinson said on Wednesday that Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, would only require scanning once it becomes “technically feasible”, meaning when such a technology is invented that allows scanning without violating encryption.

“A notice can only be issued where technically feasible and where technology has been accredited as meeting minimum standards of accuracy in detecting only child sexual abuse and exploitation content,” Parkinson said.

President of Signal Meredith Whittaker is “grateful to the UK government for making their stand clear,” she wrote on X. “Is it everything we want or need? No. But it’s vital clarity, and I’m hopeful that it opens the door for changes to the text of the bill in the final stages,” she added.

Will Cathcart, head of Meta’s WhatsApp also posted on X, saying that “the fact remains that scanning everyone’s messages would destroy privacy as we know it.  That was as true last year as it is today,” he wrote, adding that “WhatsApp will never break our encryption and remains vigilant against threats to do so.”

There are, however, still disagreements about the bill. For example, according to Tom Tugendhat, member of the British Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling, “the measures in the Online Safety Bill will help protect countless children from predators online.” He also stated yesterday that “the government’s position has not changed.”

The change, however, was not yet put into the text of the bill itself, something Whittaker also referred to, saying that she would like to see it happen.

Matthew Hodgson, CEO of UK-based Element, which supplies end-to-end encrypted messaging to militaries and governments, said that “it’s only what’s actually written in the bill that matters,” adding this only opens “the door to scanning in future rather than scanning today. It’s not a change, it’s kicking the can down the road.”

However, developing technology which allows scanning for specific material, such as child sexual abuse material, will take time, and some believe it is not possible at all.

As EURACTIV reported last week, Apple also cited privacy concerns to explain why they stopped developing their photo-scanning tool in December. According to Erik Neuenschwander, director of user privacy and child safety at Apple, scanning is “not practically possible to implement without ultimately imperilling the security and privacy of our users.”

While some experts agree, other organisations, such as the child protection NGO Thorn, use their own software to detect CSAM and claim that user privacy and child safety can co-exist.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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