The recent introduction of the Online Safety Bill is set to have a radical effect on internet-based platforms. The aim is to create an online environment free from illegal and potentially harmful content. To achieve this, the responsibility will fall on the platform owners to eliminate all outlawed materials.

However, failure to comply with these new requirements could have substantial financial implications for these firms, with penalties reaching up to £18 million or 10% of annual revenue, depending on which is higher.

One sticky point when it comes to this bill is the task of determining the content that should be censored – an issue that has sparked fierce debate. Adding to the controversy is the so-called “spy clause”, a potential rule that would oblige platforms to scan private and encrypted user messages for illicit content.

Under the clause, regulatory authority Ofcom would possess the power to demand that messaging services create and implement software to facilitate the scanning process. But there’s a catch, the necessary technology to conduct this scanning while preserving customer privacy is currently non-existent.

Element co-founder Matthew Hodgson warns, “Scanning is fundamentally incompatible with end-to-end encrypted messaging apps. Scanning bypasses the encryption in order to scan, exposing your messages to attackers.”

UK culture minister Stephen Parkinson also acknowledged this technological hurdle. “If appropriate technology does not exist which meets these requirements, Ofcom cannot require its use,” he mentioned in the House of Lords. “Ofcom cannot require companies to use proactive technology on private communications to comply.”

That said, even the existence of such technology would face considerable backlash. Critics contend that the ratification of the bill would subject consumers to unavoidable surveillance on a broader scale. Alan Woodward, a visiting professor in cybersecurity at the University of Surrey, noted, “There will always be some ‘exceptional circumstances’ that [security forces] think of that warrants them searching for something else.”

Notwithstanding the protests for user privacy, the government is standing its ground on the clause. UK government officials have implied that the government could still ask Ofcom to urge companies to devise or find technology capable of detecting and eradicating illegal child sexual abuse content.

As a potential outcome, service giants such as WhatsApp have signaled they might exit the UK if the bill is ratified.

It’s clear the global telecom industry is bracing for significant changes. Remain informed by signing up for Total Telecom’s daily newsletter or browsing other recent headlines, such as the EU’s new tech giant regulations under the Digital Markets Act, STC Group’s €2.1 billion stake in Telefónica, and Vodafone’s major Open RAN rollout in the UK.