17 January 2023

Consumers will suffer if tech execs like me are criminalised

By Matthew Hodgson

As the founder of a tech startup, I think a lot about safety and security. I have to because users of our decentralised messaging demand it – be they the Ministry of Defence, the German Healthcare industry, the French State, or security-focused multinationals.

Needless to say, this means we’ve been following the ongoing developments of the UK’s Online Safety Bill with interest. It’s fair to say that we’ve had a few concerns along the way – but we understood the intention behind it.

This week that changed. In an op-ed in The Telegraph, MPs announced they planned a new amendment to the bill that would make not delivering on the ‘duties’ set out in the Bill a criminal offence. The thought, presumably, is that people like me will be more heavily incentivised to deliver on the demands of the bill if such a threat exists.

I want to explain to MPs who might consider voting for this proposed amendment why I think it is damaging, wrong and potentially dangerous.

First, I think it’s fair to say that the debate is often framed pretty simplistically as ‘big tech companies vs safety’. The narrative goes that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg don’t take the concerns of children and other at-risk groups seriously. There’s good reason for that – these companies have had many misadventures over trust and safety.

But in attempting to rein in unruly giants, there’s a risk that disruptors like us, who are developing far better alternatives, are punished for the sins of our forefathers. We’ve not only learned from their mistakes – but we’re already working in ways that compete with the incumbents who perpetrated them. Matrix, for example, is a decentralised protocol precisely because we don’t want to run things how tech giants have – we give our customers the ability to house their own data on their own servers and run their own systems.

This has been welcomed by customers (including the UK Government itself) who want the most secure, safest and (crucially) sovereign ways to interact, without any possibility of undermined or backdoored encryption. But here lies the second huge challenge with the amendment as currently drafted. As well as threatening tech leaders themselves, according to lawyers, the language would also threaten our customers too. Why? Because those responsible for the servers will also be covered by the duties in this bill – so there’s a real risk that the amendment as drafted criminalises the customers, not the bosses. And unlike in the case of a Facebook, TikTok or YouTube, if these organisations face problems, they won’t have money to throw at someone to come and fix it – especially not when that job would come with the risk of prosecution. As a result, the UK’s tech sector is put at existential risk: it is simply not plausible for smaller players to provide secure communication services if it could land them in jail. Perversely, the Bill only serves to reward the Big Tech companies who have the resources to fight it.

This makes me concerned, not just for my customers (who will in many cases likely be unaware they are now at risk), but also for my business – as users may well prefer to use a centralised Big Tech service if it relieves them of the risk of being criminalised under the Online Safety Bill. In a world where we want more competition but crucially also better products, we could be handing tech giants more customers, and even less competition. This would be a tremendous failure.

No one doubts that there are bad actors online, and that products exist that fail to provide reasonable measures to protect their users. That’s precisely why laws to tackle them need to be carefully considered and effective – unfortunately this proposed amendment is neither.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Matthew Hodgson is Technical Co-founder at Matrix.org and CEO of Element, a secure communications platform.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.