We all remember that referendum in 2016 where the UK voted to leave the European Union – you know, the democratic vote that produced the wrong answer and has taken seven years for the establishment to finally undo with the new Windsor Framework.  But there must have been another referendum around 2019 that escaped my attention. Did we all vote for authoritarian government and the dismantling of our most basic freedoms when I was looking the other way?

That’s the only justification I can think of for the extremely dangerous Online Harms Bill. This is a belated attempt by the most centralized government in Europe to try and bring the internet under its control. I don’t want to get too technical here, but isn’t the internet supposed to be the ultimate example of a distributed, decentralized network? Well, maybe, but as we saw during Banana Syndrome the big tech companies who effectively control the internet were more than willing to help Big Government by enforcing censorship and prioritizing propaganda.

With our privacy under attack like never before, one of the last bastions of confidentiality is the end-to-end encryption used in communication technologies like Whatsapp and Signal. Guess what, in a sly, back door sort of a way, the Online Harms Bill wants to give the Deep State the power to hack into encryption and read our private messages. Of course, it will only be used in a measured way to identify paedophiles so it’s only for our own good. This is the classic authoritarian playbook – identify an extreme example, say that the government must do something about it, then introduce a solution that makes each one of us a potential suspect.

Look at the latest anti money laundering rules introduced by the banks who are running scared from possible FCA fines. Every business is now treated as a drug dealer in waiting, with tens of thousands of legitimate business accounts being closed by the likes of Metro Bank and Barclays without any proper explanation. Try getting through to the Barclays team that’s implementing these rules. They take at least 24 hours to return your call, they fail to honour agreed call times and keep finding new ‘information’ they need even after saying on the previous call that they now have everything they require. What a bunch of incompetent nincompoops our high Street banks have become.

The answer to a problem caused by a teeny, tiny percentage of criminals cannot be to treat the entire population as if they were suspected of that crime. That destroys the civilized society we and our forebears have worked so hard and long to create. One hijacker once got a plane with a bomb in his underpants so now we are all assumed to have TNT in our boxers as we pass through airport security. Could someone tell me how many terrorists have been caught by these procedures – just a round number will do. Oh, I see, it’s a very round number.

I digress. Back to the Online Harms Bill. What we have here is the interface between a rock and a hard place. The government claims that they need to be able to monitor all communications so they can identify the 0.000001% that may relate to something like grooming or paedophilia. The communications companies say that if you allow a back door into encrypted messages for that reason, you effectively remove all protection for all users.  This would be such a fundamental threat to the raison d’etre of platforms like Whatsapp and Signal that both organisations have said they will pull out of the UK if the act becomes law.

The draft legislation, which has reached the committee stage of scrutiny in the House of Lords, puts a duty of care on providers of digital services to protect their users from a range of harms and contains powers for the U.K.’s internet regulator, Ofcom, to block noncompliant services in cases of serious infringement. Of course, as has become the normal playbook with these unelected Quangos created under the most dangerous Prime Minister in living memory, Tony Blair, the regulations are backed by a regime of nosebleed level fines of up to 10% of global turnover and the threat of criminal liability and significant jail time for senior executives found to be in breach of the new rules.

A spokesman for 10 Downing Stret told the Guardian “We support strong encryption. This cannot come at the cost of public safety. It does not represent a ban on end-to-end encryption, nor will it require services to weaken encryption. It will not introduce routine scanning of private communication. This is a targeted power to use only when necessary. And whether other measures cannot be used.”

A targeted power eh? History tells us that such powers will be abused, if not by this government then certainly by their successors. The reassuring official tone clearly does not wash with WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart, who regards this as the most dangerous piece of pending legislation in the Western world. He has confirmed that his company would cease operations in the UK rather than being forced to weaken their encryption.

He told the Guardian “There isn’t a way to change WhatsApp in just one part of the world. Some countries have chosen to block it; that’s the reality of shipping a secure product. We’ve recently been blocked in Iran, for example. But we’ve never seen a liberal democracy do that. The reality is, our users all around the world want security. Ninety-eight percent of our users are outside the U.K. They do not want us to lower the security of the product, and it would be an odd choice for us to choose to lower the security of the product in a way that would affect those 98% of users.”

There has been even stronger condemnation of the proposals from Meredith Whittaker, head of the not-for-profit Signal platform. She has promised to “stand firm against threats to private and safe communication” and will “100%” walk away from the U.K. rather than weaken security and privacy for our users”. She goes on to say “As written, the provisions in the Online Safety Bill are poised to eviscerate privacy while opening new vectors for exploitation that threaten the safety and security of everyone in the U.K. As one of the first of its kind, it could also create a template that would certainly be copied by authoritarian governments. We oppose the Bill in its current form, and believe key provisions need to be fundamentally reconsidered. When the Iranian government blocked Signal, we recognized that the people in Iran who needed privacy were not represented by the authoritarian state, and we worked with our community to set up proxies and other means to ensure that Iranians could access Signal. As in Iran, we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that people in the U.K. have access to Signal and to private communications. But we will not undermine or compromise the privacy and safety promises we make to people in the U.K., and everywhere else in the world.”

How nice for the UK to be bracketed with Iran in terms of how the Big State wants to treat us – its compliant serfs, sorry, that’s a typo, I meant to say its freedom loving citizens. You may be less familiar with Element, the UK start up behind the Matrix end to end encryption platform. Their co-founder Matthew Hodgson has been even more outspoken about the threat of the proposed legislation. In a recent blog post he writes: “What could have been a constructive piece of legislation has ended up as a bloated and overreaching proposal, drafted with little technical prowess. As it currently stands the bill weakens the U.K.’s digital security, threatens basic privacy, stymies the U.K. tech industry, and introduces the prospect of ever-creeping censorship and blanket surveillance.  Instead of setting a principled example to the rest of the world, the OSB sees the U.K. proposing state surveillance and censorship. It’s far closer to the approach seen from regimes in Russia and China than anything in Europe or the U.S.”

Iran, Russia, China. These are the role models for our so-called Conservative government as it seeks new ways to bring us all under their surveillance and control. There’s always a compelling reason why we simply must surrender these freedoms for the common good.  I’m afraid I don’t buy it. The direction of travel is clear – if you and I don’t start pushing back soon, by the end of this decade the UK will be a fully authoritarian country modelled on The People’s Republic. Have you joined Big Brother Watch yet? The link is in the description.

Assuming OFCOM don’t block me for online harm, I’ll see you next time.