Signal will leave the UK if the current version of the Online Safety Bill becomes law, says the company’s president
Sep 1, 2023

Signal will leave the UK if the current version of the Online Safety Bill becomes law, says the company’s president

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"We have to recognize the stakes of a law like this, where people's life and death can be at stake," says Meredith Whittaker.

The UK’s “Online Safety Bill” is on Parliament’s agenda as members return next week. Supporters promise it would make Britain the safest place in the world to be online, protecting especially kids from harmful content.

But while acknowledging its intent, U.S. tech executives say it deals a major blow to privacy.

Meredith Whittaker, president of the nonprofit encrypted messaging app Signal, is an outspoken critic.
She’s concerned by a clause that lets British regulators mandate that citizens install surveillance software. The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace’s Lily Jamali.

Signal messaging application President Meredith Whittaker poses for a photograph before an interview at the Europe's largest tech conference, the Web Summit, in Lisbon on November 4, 2022.
(Patricia De Melo Moreira/Getty Images)

Meredith Whittaker: This would be in the name of detecting harmful expression, harmful content, particularly content related to child abuse. Now, of course, this raises a whole host of civil liberties concerns. You know, we’re hoping that by talking to legislators we can set the record straight and get an amendment added to the bill that would make clear that this is not intended to undermine the fundamental security and safety of the UK’s communications infrastructure.

Lily Jamali: What are the options here? If this bill becomes law with this clause included, do you change the way that you operate?

Whittaker: We at Signal are committed to providing a tool for meaningful, private communication for everyone across the globe. But if the choice came down to adulterating our core mission, undermining the encryption that enables meaningful privacy, we’re leaving the UK, we would leave the UK. You know, the long-standing technical consensus, and this goes back before the 90s, but really flared up in the 90s during the first iteration of what we call the crypto wars, where you had the US government wanting backdoors into encryption algorithms. And the vast majority, I would say, of the technical community showing over and over again that technologically, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot have a backdoor that only the good guys can access. Either it’s broken for everyone, or it works to preserve meaningful privacy.

Jamali: What are the things you’re considering as you decide what to do?

Whittaker: Well, I think we’re keeping our eyes peeled on this bill. And we are still hopeful that during this third reading, which commences on September 6, when the UK Parliament resumes, that we can have enough clear conversations with lawmakers so that we can get an amendment that just simply makes clear that the provisioning of these mass surveillance systems won’t be used to break private communications and to subject all communications of UK citizens to government surveillance. So we’re keeping an eye out. But we are concerned, because we know that tech legislation in particular, is frequently copied and pasted. Once someone sets a precedent, it often becomes a de facto standard. And in this case, in particular, there are authoritarian-leaning regimes that are looking to the UK as a liberal democracy, who set a fairly alarming precedent on mass surveillance of all citizens’ communications. So if we look to places like Uganda, where a law backed by U.S. evangelicals just passed that makes being gay punishable by death, we have to recognize the stakes of a law like this, where people’s life and death can be at stake. And we have to recognize that even if this law isn’t passed in Uganda, there are people in the UK who have relationships with people in Uganda. Communication doesn’t stay within jurisdictions, there are people talking with people in the UK from every part of the world, every day using these systems, and undermining them at one end of that communication can endanger the people at the other end, even if they’re not located in the United Kingdom.

Jamali: What about for Signal users here in the United States? If the UK proceeds with this, is this going to be felt by users, myself included, of the app here?

Whittaker: Well, we will never do anything to undermine our core privacy technologies or undermine the trust people placed in us. So folks in the U.S. shouldn’t feel this. Even as we move into the last chance to really remedy this bill, there is hope that by clarifying these stakes, and by making clear that some of the specious claims around creating technological solutions that can both scan everyone’s messages and preserve privacy, that we can really set the facts straight and make it clear that that is magical thinking, there’s no such technology that can square this circle. And we need to move forward based on long standing expert consensus.

Jamali: I’m hearing you say that there is just nothing out there in terms of technology that would sort of walk that narrow path that we’re trying to find between privacy and safety. I wonder if we can dwell for a moment on the intent of this bill, because I think most of us can agree that the intent is good. You know, we want to protect people, especially kids online. Do you see any different path to that end that you would consider advocating for?

Whittaker: Oh, absolutely. I think protecting children is paramount, and brings us face to face with a lot of some difficult and grim social issues that are often difficult to confront. So, you know, it’s understandable why abstracting these into problems that happen online and then proposing technological solutions is a bit more comfortable than, you know, facing a world where it’s very rare for victims to see justice, where in the UK, social services have been cut by 50%. Over the last decade where, you know, early intervention support for children who are experiencing or potentially experiencing abuse has been funded at about 7% of the suggested funding funding amount. So, you know, there’s a lot to do to protect children. And, you know, there certainly are harms that children encounter online. But there is no evidence that mass surveillance of private interpersonal communication is a pathway to protecting children. So I think there is, you know, in, in such an emotionally charged topic, given the very legitimate grievances that many people have against large tech companies, particularly social media platforms, this has become a kind of environment where it, you know, it has been easy to, again, sneak in clauses like this that actually have very little to do with protecting children, and a lot more to do, in my view with expanding the surveillance stake state, under, you know, the umbrella of protecting children in an environment where holding big tech accountable is so necessary. But you know, if we look at this closely, what I believe we’re seeing is a bait and switch, people, including myself, would love to see these companies held accountable, particularly around their mass surveillance regimes and the unchecked data collection and use that they have perpetrated for the last number of decades. But again, what we’re seeing is, is not holding them accountable. It’s in fact, the opposite. It’s expanding these surveillance capacities expanding, you know, big textile surveillance in a pretty dramatic way, again, under the umbrella of holding these companies accountable. So we need to disentangle this. And we need to continue to demand accountability, but we can’t accept this bait and switch, which in fact, just expands exactly the powers that we should be resisting.

Jamali: I mean, you find yourself as the president of Signal on the same side in this debate as Meta, which owns WhatsApp among many other properties. Is there any daylight between you and that particular company on this issue?

Whittaker: Well I mean, let’s be clear, you know, the Venn diagram is two circles with a small sliver of overlap, right? Like I am not a fan of Meta. However, WhatsApp does use the signal protocol to encrypt the contents of most messages. And that is an incredibly powerful way that, you know, meaningful privacy in the age of digital mass surveillance became available to billions of people. But you know, there’s a lot of daylight between me and Meta in terms of my critique of their business model, my critique of their mass surveillance, my critique of their callousness in the face of many harms, etc, etc.

More on this

There is just so much in this giant 250-plus page piece of legislation. The Online Safety Bill has been in the works for four years, across the tenures of as many prime ministers, and The Verge has a very helpful explainer on the bill and how we got here.

Also, Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says 34,000 online grooming crimes have been recorded by police there since 2017. They are vocal proponents of the bill.

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