WhatsApp could soon be illegal in the UK, boss warns

WhatsApp could be banned in the UK, its head has warned.

The UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill could force the app to weaken the end-to-end encryption that currently secures messages on the service, said Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp at parent company Meta.

If the government forced the company to do weaken that security, WhatsApp would refuse, leaving open the possibility that the app would be banned entirely within the country, he confirmed.

End-to-end encryption secures messages by ensuring that only those sending and receiving them can read them, and even the services themselves do not have access. Technology companies and security experts say it is necessary to protect messages from hacking and other threats – but officials including those in the UK have argued that it should be weakened so that messages can be scanned for illegal content.

Mr Cathcart expressed shock that the company would be forced into such a policy in the UK. But he said that the upcoming legislation does not give proper confidence that the app would not be forced into weakening its own privacy.

“It’s a remarkable thing to think about,” he said. “The experience we’ve faced all around the world is that’s only happened in governments that were trying to crack down on their citizens’ ability to communicate freely.”

If the UK’s government were to push for such changes, it would “shape what other countries all around the world ask for on different topics, on different issues”, he said.

“When a liberal democracy says, ‘Is it OK to scan everyone’s private communication for illegal content?’, that emboldens countries around the world that have very different definitions of illegal content to propose the same thing.”

The Online Safety Bill was first introduced by Boris Johnson, and is currently on its way through parliament. It allows the government or regulator Ofcom to demand that apps scan messages for terrorist or child sexual abuse material, which would not be possible without weakening the encryption that currently protects all messages.

Authorities already have the ability to demand that apps remove encryption, under the Investigatory Powers Bill, which companies including Apple explicitly argued against. But that encryption is still in place, and Mr Cathcart confirmed that WhatsApp had not received a demand to remove it from the UK government.

But the upcoming Online Safety Bill includes other legal “grey areas” that could make it easier for regulators or government to demand apps weaken encryption, Mr Cathcart said. That has brought criticism from not only WhatsApp but rival secure messaging app Signal, which has said that it “would absolutely, 100% walk” from the UK if it received such a request.

WhatsApp stressed that it offers the same app globally, and that there is no way for it to comply with weakening encryption in the UK without doing the same elsewhere. It would not do that even if asked by the UK government, Mr Cathcart said.

He declined to speculate on specifically how he expected any possible ban would actually happen. But he pointed to countries such as Iran where the government has blocked the app – though users are still able to access it, through virtual private networks and other technology that allows people to circumvent restrictions.

Even if that happened in the UK, it would still pose a problem, Mr Cathcart said. “I don’t know that people want to live in a world where to communicate privately to someone it has to be illegal,” he said.

“I think a lot of people will. But I still think that’s a bad thing.”

To avoid such a situation, Mr Cathcart urged the UK government to add wording to the bill so that it would make clear private messaging is different from other social networks, and that encryption should be protected. He said that the government has made public statements about the importance of such security, but that it should be explicitly written within that legislation.