In a recent statement, Apple has expressed apprehension about the potential privacy risks associated with the passage of the “Online Safety Bill” in the UK. The bill, which has faced numerous delays, is being expedited by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government. It has garnered attention due to its focus on addressing “harmful content,” including concerns raised by social conservatives, religious groups, and SWERF activists who have conducted a campaign emphasizing the dangers of such content in the UK media.
The Online Safety Bill, first proposed as an online harms white paper during Theresa May’s tenure, has gone through several revisions under four different prime ministers and seven secretaries of state, as highlighted by The Guardian in November.
Apple has now issued a clear statement to BBC News, emphasizing the privacy issues that would arise if the bill is enacted. The company’s representative stated that end-to-end encryption plays a crucial role in safeguarding the privacy of individuals, including journalists, human rights activists, and diplomats. It also provides protection for ordinary citizens against surveillance, identity theft, fraud, and data breaches. Apple believes that the Online Safety Bill poses a significant threat to this protection, potentially putting UK citizens at greater risk.
According to a report by Gizmodo, if the bill becomes law, the government plans to use technology to access encrypted messages in order to search for child abuse content. However, technology experts argue that this would require scanning messages before they are sent, utilizing facial recognition without the user’s knowledge through client-side scanning. Apple had previously developed this technology and announced plans in 2021 to scan photos on iPhones for abusive content. However, the company withdrew these plans after facing backlash from privacy advocates.
Dr. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, a British security and privacy expert, pointed out that the bill could lead to the installation of software that checks for the sharing of images known to contain child sexual abuse material. However, he also expressed concerns that this software could be modified to include hidden features, such as scanning private content on the phones of millions of people using facial recognition technology, similar to what is employed at airport gates.
Messaging platforms WhatsApp and Signal have already indicated their potential withdrawal from the UK market if the bill is passed.
Prime Minister Sunak has faced pressure from members of his Conservative Party to strengthen the Online Safety Bill, particularly by increasing the liability of platforms hosting adult content. In January, Bloomberg reported that Tory MPs critical of pornography threatened a rebellion, leading Sunak to concede to demands for potential imprisonment of Big Tech directors who fail to remove harmful content.
Since its inception, the Online Safety Bill has been mired in conceptual chaos, with vague objectives such as “protecting children,” “combating hate speech,” and “cleaning up the internet.” This lack of clarity has contributed to widespread criticism from advocates of free speech and digital rights. Moderate members of the Conservative Party have also voiced concerns about the bill’s potential impact on freedom of expression and privacy.