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WhatsApp faces a potential UK exit due to privacy disputes linked to the online safety bill

WhatsApp may leave the UK over privacy concerns, as ambiguity in the online safety bill threatens the platform's end-to-end encryption.

The UK government may inadvertently force WhatsApp to leave the British market due to an escalating disagreement over the online safety bill, which could compromise the app's end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Ministers have been alerted to the diminishing chances of an amicable resolution, with experts warning that options are quickly running out.

The online safety bill, a comprehensive piece of legislation four years in the making, aims to regulate various aspects of online life in the UK. The bill grants Ofcom the authority to impose technological requirements on social networks for combating terrorism and child sexual abuse content. Failure to comply may result in fines of up to 10% of global turnover.

However, messaging apps that utilize E2EE, like WhatsApp, argue that reading user messages without violating their privacy commitments is technologically unfeasible. The bill lacks explicit protection for encryption, and as it stands, could allow Ofcom to mandate proactive scanning of private messages on E2EE communication services. This would undermine the purpose of E2EE and compromise user privacy.

WhatsApp insists it will prioritize the security of its non-UK users if forced to choose, with CEO Will Cathcart highlighting that 98% of the platform's users reside outside the UK. Legislators are urging the government to take these concerns seriously, as global platforms like WhatsApp may leave the UK market rather than compromise the privacy of billions of users worldwide.

The Home Office maintains that the bill does not ban E2EE, nor require services to weaken encryption. However, some, like Liberal Democrat peer Richard Allan, describe the government's approach as one of "intentional ambiguity." As the dispute continues, the future of WhatsApp in the UK remains uncertain.