WhatsApp and Signal survive EU chat control bill — For now

The NFT Unicorn 6fe1515d-769d-4f13-b183-adcec1832f04 WhatsApp and Signal survive EU chat control bill — For now Crypto News

The Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union has dropped plans to scan messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Signal.

The Chat Control 2 proposal to mass surveil user messages would see images, videos and URLs scanned by artificial intelligence (AI) to detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

A vote on the controversial legislation was canceled on June 20 when it became clear it would not have enough support to pass.

Matthew Nimerg, the co-founder of Aleph Zero — a layer-1 blockchain with private smart contracts utilizing zero-knowledge proofs — told Cointelegraph the legislation was poorly conceived.

“While well-intentioned to prevent people from using and sharing illegal content, the latest client-side abuse monitoring scheme being proposed undermines law-abiding citizens’ rights. Spying on citizens in the name of public safety should never be a solution, lest we forget history,” said Nimerg.

Nimberg went on to say that if enacted, the legislation would be more invasive for ordinary users than criminal elements.

“This proposal wouldn’t even stop technically savvy criminals from using other open-source software tools to bypass the law and ends up only harming good actors,” Nimerg said.

Compromises and mission creep

The EU first forwarded chat control legislation in 2023, and it has gone through several iterations since then.

The EU initially proposed much further-reaching powers that would have enabled lawmakers to access text messages and audio. When it became clear the bill would not pass in the European Parliament, it was scaled back in scope, with images, video and URLs to be scanned only by an AI algorithm.

Additionally, app users would have to consent to scans to access this functionality. But skeptics believe watered-down legislation can become the thin edge of the wedge.

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As Nimerg told Cointelegraph, “Such a mandate is the beginning of a slippery slope and allows regulators to put a foot in the door to prevent people from using other technologies that use cryptography, such as privacy-enhanced decentralized applications deployed on a blockchain.”

But while the bill has not won approval in the parliament, it is not clear whether regulators agree. For that reason, the Chat Control 2 law may yet be resurrected in another form.

In a statement released on June 20, privacy campaigner and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Patrick Breyer said:

“Without the commitment and resistance of countless individuals and organizations in Europe, the EU government would have decided today in favor of totalitarian indiscriminate chat control, burying the digital privacy of correspondence and secure encryption.”

A lesson from the United Kingdom

From a U.K. perspective, the EU bill reflects a growing trend toward government overreach and interference.

In October 2023, the U.K. passed the Online Safety Bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that eroded privacy rights in the name of protecting children.

The bill’s ambitions extended further in the name of safety, however, as it also seeks to stamp out coercive behavior, sexual violence, people smuggling, suicide, self-harm, drugs, weapons, terrorism and cruelty to animals.

Therefore, the U.K. bill provides a perfect roadmap for how an EU anti-child abuse bill could expand into other areas once implemented.

The new U.K. rules prompted WhatsApp and Signal to threaten to leave the the country entirely.

The crisis was averted when the U.K. Minister for Arts and Heritage, Stephen Parkinson, clarified that regulators would only intervene when scanning content was “technically feasible,” which, for the moment, it is not.

This was enough to successfully placate WhatsApp and Signal in the short term and means the problems created by the U.K.’s Online Safety Bill will need to be worked out by someone else at a later date.

Cointelegraph spoke with Mark Johnson, advocacy manager at the U.K. civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, about the U.K. bill and its EU counterpart.

“The news that the EU has put the breaks on their proposed chat control measures is welcome. While these plans would not have applied directly to the U.K., any rules which allow governments to conduct mass snooping on internationally used messaging apps like WhatsApp would have an impact on Brits’ privacy too,” said Johnson.

What now?

Johnson went on to tell Cointelegraph that he hoped the U.K. would rethink its own privacy-eroding legislation.

The question now is what happens when the EU rethinks its legislation.

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According to Breyer, only the judiciary should have the power to order searches on messaging apps.

The MEP added, “This is the only way to avoid a disproportionate mass surveillance order inevitably failing in court and achieving nothing at all for children.”