WhatsApp, Meta’s popular messaging app, has introduced a feature that allows users to bypass attempts to disrupt access to its services as repressive governments around the world increasingly use internet controls to crack down on dissent.
The messaging service allows users to configure the app to access the internet through proxy servers, which act as intermediaries between users and internet services and can help obfuscate traffic and avoid controls. (Users must research their own proxy servers, many of which are provided for free by volunteers and organizations around the world.) The company specifically mentioned Iran launching a crackdown on security — and residents’ access to WhatsApp and Instagram disrupted other meta-platforms – after anti-government protests erupted in September.
WhatsApp, also a sister company of Facebook, is not the first service to support censored internet users. But its move is significant because it’s the most popular messaging service in many countries. The service claims to have more than 2 billion users in 180 countries.
“Our wish for 2023 is that these internet shutdowns never happen,” the company said in a statement, adding that it hoped its solution would help in the event of shutdowns. WhatsApp also separately announced the launch of its new feature in Persian, the language of Iran.
Park Hyon-do, an Iran expert at South Korea’s Sogang University, said making WhatsApp easier for Iranians to access would help young and internet-savvy protesters by making information more readily available and bringing people with common grievances together. He noted that such moves largely reflect the hopes of those living outside the country to give the protests more momentum.
WhatsApp referenced a recent United Nations report on internet shutdowns, which mentioned disruptions in Myanmar (aka Burma) and Sudan, where rights violations and poverty have sparked community unrest. At least 44 governments have imposed internet blackouts in the last five years, according to internet services company Surfshark, adding that regimes are increasingly turning to less disruptive censorship measures, such as blackmail. B. Controlling certain websites and services.
Proxy server and virtual private network providers have historically helped people bypass government-sponsored Internet controls. (VPNs and proxy servers share some similarities, but the former also encrypt data.) When Tehran imposed a partial internet blackout in 2012, use of such services increased dramatically. Last year, WhatsApp competitor Signal, which was founded by an encryption advocate and emphasizes privacy in its marketing, said it would help volunteers build proxy servers for people in Iran.
WhatsApp said people accessing its service through proxy servers would have the same “high level of privacy and security” offered to other users, including end-to-end encryption as standard. But it has also been criticized by privacy advocates for sharing certain customer information with other meta-corporations. The platform says it evaluates requests from law enforcement outside the US for details of account records based on whether the requests are “consistent with internationally accepted standards, including human rights, due process and the rule of law.”
While WhatsApp’s new feature aims to help people in developing countries bypass repressive regimes, its corporate sibling Facebook has a history of weak moderation controls that left it vulnerable to abuse and disinformation from authoritarian governments and other bad actors, The Washington Post reported . A group of Rohingya refugees sued Facebook for $150 billion in 2021, claiming its algorithm boosted hate speech and helped perpetuate genocidal actions by the military junta in Myanmar.
In response to a request for comment, a Meta spokesman stressed that a US judge dismissed the Rohingya plaintiffs’ lawsuit last month. (The plaintiffs were also given an opportunity to resubmit their complaint.)
Myanmar’s authoritarian government now relies heavily on internet shutdowns to cover up its brutality against democracy activists and other civilians, rights groups say.