Don’t follow Iran in banning encrypted messaging like Signal and WhatsApp

This month you received “Your Parliamentary Briefing: standing up to the Iranian regime” in your inbox.
After a British-Iranian woman at Conference Q&As was left “looking for inspiration” as to what she could do “from here in Britain” to fight totalitarianism, Lib Dem MPs have “called on the UK government to take a stronger stance against the Iranian regime”.

Let’s instead start here in Britain.

The Online Safety Bill’s ‘spy clause’ would follow Iran in banning Encryption and by extension Signal, WhatsApp and Proton. Will you oppose?

That was my 25-word question to Ed Davey. Alas it wasn’t asked, so now I get to tell you about it in 750.


I understand Ed, Daisy & their 12 disciples supporting the Online Safety Bill: I did too.
My Fulbright scholarship in technology uncovered the harms of technology dependence, an issue I struggled with as an adolescent as I reveal in my single “Honest” this month.
So I supported in December – onstage at a Unicef conference – the UK’s landmark attempts to hold Big Tech to account for public content they promote to minors like tragic victim Molly Russell.
And I support Wera Hobhouse’s intentions to help protect women and other communities most targeted with public online hate.

But thanks to digital-rights advocates Open Rights Group, we’ve since become aware that the child-protection rhetoric has been twisted to belittle all British citizens. They want OFCOM to scan all of our digital communications.
This potent clause that will require messenger apps to use OFCOM “accredited technology to prevent individuals from encountering terrorism or CSEA content” is buried 4 levels deep (110.2.a.ii), so it’s no surprise that the only Lib Dem who seemed aware of it at my first conference was tech-specialist Lord Clement-Jones.

Though vague, the clause clearly enough intends to break Encryption for Signal – and even WhatsApp who borrow their nonprofit encryption protocol – to cry foul on government surveillance and threaten to pull from UK app stores.
Quick reality check: WhatsApp’s owned by Meta, who recently had to compensate me 300 quid for a privacy-breach. They think HMG is threatening Britons privacy.

No more WhatsApp. Nice, no more Group Chat notifications, and Matt Hancock can get back to serving his constituents.
And no more terrorism or child-abuse?
Not quite. The educated and savvy – baddies included – will still find a way of multiplying their prime numbers to encrypt sensitive comms. About bad things they’re attempting In Real Life.

Who this really restricts is the millions of British residents – men & women born in Workington, Orpington and Stevenage but also Kabul, Kyiv and Tehran – who want to easily send digital text & images to another individual.
Especially in a pandemic era when liberal parties endorse social-distancing, digital communications might be the only chance they get to talk privately about an oppressor: in their home, their country or – as I increasingly believe to be a threat from Artificial General Intelligence – online itself.

Yes, modern liberalism encourages state-intervention to protect the vulnerable from harm, where it doesn’t harm or restrict the rights and liberties of others.
So let’s raise standards of intelligence services to avoid negligence on flags about the next Manchester-bomber. Let’s invest in under-resourced social-services teams to respond to amassing child-abuse reports. And yes, let’s pass digital regulations to prevent tech companies profiting from promoting harmful content to British girls & boys. Since Rousseau’s Emile, liberal philosophy has always carved out space to restrict children’s freedoms to curate a healthy upbringing.

But let’s not do like those regimes we condemn, and enrich a state-approved company to AI-scan every adult’s private communications without suspicion.

When the Islamic Republic of Iran banned encrypted messaging apps as part of its crackdown on women, Signal responded by publishing this special guide to help Iranians reconnect: signal.org/blog/help-iran-reconnect.
Unless this ‘spy clause’ is struck from the Online Safety Bill before it passes through the Lords, the Iranian women we welcome to British shores may soon, in order to discuss unfashionable topics privately, have to revisit that guide.


If you’d like to pressure parliament to strike this clause, our only chance now is Britain’s very own ‘christian consultative assembly’.
Please join me writing to Lib Dem Lords like Tim Clement-Jones with ORG’s “Don’t Scan Me” campaign as they begin discussing clauses at Lords Committee stages.

I encourage humans to add thoughts publicly below. And if you’d like a grown-up response on them you can reach me on Signal and WhatsApp – for now – at plus-fours 748 double-O 68523.

* Laurence Warner is a party member and an entertainer for the internet age, from small town Eastleigh. He releases a new single each month at LaurenceWarner.com and blogs on wa.rner.me.

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5 Comments

  • Peter Davies 20th Apr '23 - 7:41pm

    Conspirators can of course swap encryption keys offline making their communications over unencrypted channels as secure if not more so than they would by using an encrypted messaging service. The people who will be hit by the loss of strong encryption will be those who are not used to hiding dark secrets and are liable to say things they would rather do not come to the ears of criminal gangs or despotic regimes.

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Apr '23 - 7:06am

    @Mohammed Amin
    “On the other hand, law abiding citizens are entitled to privacy from government surveillance.”
    You said it!!

    Why on earth should any reasonably minded person trust this government (for example) given its ‘public reputation for integrity’ not to look at our private messages?

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '23 - 9:51am

    Absolutely Banning strong encryption benefits only criminals and despots. What advocates of this policy tend to forget is that if government can break encryption via a ‘back door’ then so can criminals.

  • > The Online Safety Bill’s ‘spy clause’ would follow Iran in banning Encryption
    It does more than that…
    It gives Ofcom the power to undertake mass surveillance. Something it will have to if it is to comply with the stipulations regarding ‘content communicated publicly or privately’. Ie. it is more than backdoor key the government (and the other of 14 law enforcement bodies that constitute the Virtual Global Taskforce ) is wanting to possess. Naturally, being the UK and the government being adverse to “red tape” there is little in the way of safeguards in the bill…

    Whilst the focus is law enforcement a beneficiary of non-encryption will be commercial organisations who will gain greater access to our (private) communications…

    Another beneficiary will be the zealots, we only need to look at what has happened in the US since the over throwing of the Roe v. Wade decision, to what we can expect.

    As for following Iran, the Republicans and similar Conservatives have much in common with the ayatollahs…

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