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UK moves to regulate private messaging to protect against ‘harmful content’

'We are unable to envisage circumstances where such a destructive step . . . could be justified'

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Yudi Sherman

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November 28, 2022

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08:06 AM

UK moves to regulate private messaging to protect against ‘harmful content’

A bill returned to the House of Commons last week would allows UK communications regulator Ofcom to force private messaging platforms to scan users’ messages for “harmful content.” It would also allow Ofcom to end the messaging services altogether. 

Platforms such as Whatsapp, Telegram and Signal boast end-to-end encryption (E2EE), meaning that private messages are hidden from prying eyes. 

But that would change with the Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation introduced in March 2021 and now going through the final stages of the House of Commons. The bill would allow the government’s prying eyes to invade private messages and scan for a “harmful communications offence,” which is content sweepingly defined as that which causes “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress.” 

Ofcom would not need prior authorization to demand invasive scans of private messages, nor is the regulator subjected to independent oversight in the matter. 

In a legal opinion reported by Reclaim the Net, human rights lawyer Matthew Ryder said the bill will “allow the state to compel [tech companies] to carry out surveillance of the content of communications on a generalized and widespread basis.” 

“We are unable to envisage circumstances where such a destructive step in the security of global online communications for billions of users could be justified,” Ryder added.  

Ryder says that instead of banning E2EE altogether, messaging platforms might be forced to use a controversial technology called client side scanning (CSS), according to TechCrunch. CSS scans messages for objectionable content before being sent to the recipient. 

“Clause 104 does not refer to CSS (or any technology) by name,” says Ryder. “It mentions only ‘accredited technology’. However, the practical implementation of 104 Notices requiring the identification, removal and/or blocking of content leads almost inevitably to the concern that this power will be used by Ofcom to mandate CSPs [communications service providers] using some form of CSS.” 

“The Bill notes that the accredited technology referred to c.104 is a form of ‘content moderation technology’, meaning ‘technology, such as algorithms, keyword matching, image matching or image classification, which […] analyses relevant content’ (c.187(2)(11). This description corresponds with CSS,” he added. 

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