UK’s Child Protection Policy Unnerves Big Tech

child protection policy, online safety bill, OFCOM, UK, Lock

The UK government made significant amendments to its proposed powers that would require tech firms to scan encrypted messages, under child protection policy.

  • Tech firms like Signal, WhatsApp, and Apple oppose the measures due to privacy concerns.
  • Amendments now mandate a detailed report before utilizing the powers by OFCOM, the communications regulator.

On July 19th, the UK government amended its proposed powers that would compel tech firms, such as Signal and WhatsApp, to scan encrypted messages. The child protection policy originally aimed to combat child abuse imagery and online grooming on encrypted platforms.

Companies like Signal, WhatsApp, and Apple strongly oppose the measures, citing significant privacy concerns. The amendments now require a detailed report to be written before the powers are utilized by the communications regulator, OFCOM.

The Online Safety Bill, currently advancing through Parliament, aims to grant OFCOM the authority to force tech companies to utilize “accredited technology” to scan messages for child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Under the previous versions of the bill, the preparation of a report before exercising these powers was optional. However, the amended bill now mandates that a “skilled person” must prepare a report for OFCOM. Under this child protection policy, this report should encompass an assessment of the impact of scanning on freedom of expression and privacy, along with a consideration of less intrusive technologies that could serve the same purpose.

Another amendment requires OFCOM to take into account the implications of using such technology on journalism and the protection of journalistic sources. This addition appears to be a response to concerns raised by major messaging apps, other companies, and technical experts regarding the potential negative consequences on journalistic freedom and source protection.

The proponents of the child protection policy, including ministers, law enforcement, and children’s charities, argue that they are necessary to combat the alarming increase in child abuse on online platforms. They claim that encrypted platforms provide a safe haven for child abusers to operate without being traced.

Critics contend that the proposed powers would require companies to scan messages before they are encrypted, essentially employing client-side scanning. This process fundamentally undermines the privacy and security that encrypted messaging offers. Meredith Whittaker, the president of Signal, expressed concerns that tech firms would be forced to run government-mandated scanning services on their devices.

In response to the privacy implications and technical feasibility concerns, the government has assured that strong safeguards have been incorporated into the bill to protect users’ privacy. Under the new amendments, OFCOM must consider the report’s findings before deciding whether it is necessary and proportionate to compel a firm to scan messages.

Nevertheless, privacy advocates and free-speech campaigners remain unsatisfied with the amendments. They have dubbed the proposed powers a “spy clause” and argue that a judge should be required to authorize the scanning of user messages, providing a higher level of independent oversight.

The Open Rights Group, which advocates for digital rights, criticized the government amendment, writing “Given that this ‘skilled person’ could be a political appointee, and they would be overseeing decisions about free speech and privacy rights, this would not be effective oversight.” Campaigners also noted that the reports generated under the amendments lack legal authority and are not binding.

Despite the criticism and controversy, the Nation Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) voiced support for the powers in the bill, considering it to be a balanced solution to encourage companies to mitigate the risks of CSAM when implementing end-to-end encryption features.

As the Online Safety Bill continues its journey through Parliament, further discussions are likely to ensue, addressing the delicate balance between protecting privacy and combating online child abuse.

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