WhatsApp adds a feature to bypass internet censorship in repressive regimes

Washington: Popular messaging app WhatsApp 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.

WhatsApp has moved to help people stay online when autocratic regimes dial down access to the internet to prevent them from organizing protests.

WhatsApp has moved to help people stay online when autocratic regimes dial down access to the internet to prevent them from organizing protests.Credit:Bloomberg

Meta’s messaging service, which also owns Facebook, 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 free of charge by volunteers and organizations around the world.) The company specifically mentioned Iran launching a brutal security crackdown — and residents’ access to WhatsApp and sister platform Meta disrupted Instagram – after anti-government protests erupted in September.

WhatsApp is not the first service to support internet users living under censorship. 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 a shutdown. 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.

Iranians are protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by vice squads in Tehran in October.

Iranians are protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by vice squads in Tehran in October.Credit:AP

WhatsApp referred to a recent United Nations report on internet shutdowns, which mentioned disruptions in Myanmar 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.

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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.

https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/whatsapp-adds-feature-to-bypass-internet-censors-in-repressive-regimes-20230107-p5cayc.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_world WhatsApp adds a feature to bypass internet censorship in repressive regimes

Callan Tansill

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