By Staffordshire Patriot
Recently the current Tory government has passed the “Online Safety Act”. A draconian piece of legislation that fails to understand how the internet works.
The internet has come a long way since its conception. Many of us remember a time without it, now it’s very difficult to live a life without using it.
When the worldwide web became a thing, where anyone with the knowledge could set up their own website, the internet heralded a new age of free speech outside the reach of government censorship.
Over the years a small number of tech companies had successful services that captured a lot of users. Google and Facebook spring to mind, which of course creates unhealthy centralisation.
Smart phones have captured a lot of the market, with just about all of the smartphone market having just one of two operating systems, that’s also a dangerous red flag creating more unwanted centralisation.
The act gives powers to Ofcom and puts responsibility onto larger platforms to monitor for illegal content and protect children from strangers.
This also means search engine services are also required to filter out potentially illegal content.
One part of the act requires messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to scan for child porn. Normally this involves checking against a database for files with a certain “hash”.
A hash is a unique signature for a file. Hashes can be used to identify files. This can be handy when scanning for abuse images in a datacentre if one has a database of the hashes of known offensive images.
However, in messaging apps, the files are encrypted “end to end” which means if you send a file to one of your friends, only you and your friend can read the message including any attached files. No one in-between can read the message as it’s encrypted to such a high standard that not even the security services can.
The government wants to get around this, by forcing WhatsApp to scan for the files on both ends. There are several problems with that:
1. Paedophiles (Or anyone else who doesn’t want their files scanned) would either use open source messaging or some other file sharing app that doesn’t scan the files.
2. It makes it easy for any future government to demand that files that embarrass the government be scanned for, with non-abuse related file hashes being added to the blacklist.
3. It in effect breaks encryption because it in effect creates a back door for the government, so who’s holding the keys and what happens when criminals or a foreign hostile state gets hold of those keys to the backdoor?
4. How is jurisdiction going to be applied when two users put a VPN on their phones, making both phones show up in a non-UK country. Will people the world over be able to use WhatsApp if they don’t give location permission to it?
5. End to end encryption would better protect children as opposed to the possibility of our government being the biggest collectors of sexually explicit child images on the planet. This alone puts children at far greater risk from harm than having end to end encryption, because not only would bad actors abusing their trust as officials in a governmental system be a problem, but so would anyone who manages to hack into any infrastructure where such sensitive images and files are collected as evidence.
The internet is still evolving, and it will always evolve to resist any form of censorship and invasions of privacy. There are many technologies out there including the crypto-currencies and the decentralised web that are evolving so fast, no government will be able to keep up.
Whether we like it or not, people will be able to communicate in a secure fashion on the internet. It’s education about how the internet works that keeps people safe, not draconian interference that harms our own citizens while making the authorities safer.
In effect, our online freedoms are frustrated while bad actors can continue their business.
Any censorship on search engine results really does damage our democracy, but that will spur on the motivation to create new search engines that are decentralised and are standardised open transparent protocols for the benefit of everyone.
It’s very disappointing this bill passed to become an act, because there’s little prospect of Labour revoking it as they aren’t known for being champions of free speech or any freedoms for that matter.
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