When repressive governments want to control their populations, citizens’ access to the internet is often one of the first things to go. Since 2016, 74 countries around the world have shut down the internet for tens of millions of people more than 900 times
Internet shutdowns, at their worst, can involve connections being completely shut, while censorship me asures can block access to specific websites or apps. Disrupting the internet is widely considered a tactic to undermine people’s human rights
Tools to help people get around censorship are increasing. Today, WhatsApp—Meta’s end-to-end encrypted messenger that’s used by more than 2 billion people a month—is expanding its anti-censorship measures.
In particular, the company is making it possible for people facing censorship to use WhatsApp through proxy connections, potentially allowing them to communicate when a country has blocked the app. “Choosing a proxy enables you to connect to WhatsApp through servers set up by volunteers and organizations around the world dedicated to helping people communicate freely,” the company says in a blog post announcing the feature.
Proxies can help people avoid censorship by essentially disguising their traffic. If WhatsApp is blocked in a country, for example, officials doing the blocking are likely to stop devices communicating with WhatsApp’s infrastructure. When someone connects to a proxy server, their traffic is routed through this server before being passed to WhatsApp. The extra step dodges filters and blocks that may have been put in place.
Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at internet rights nonprofit Access Now, says Meta’s tool is a step in the right direction. “WhatsApp can be viewed as a critical infrastructure in many countries, so when it goes offline, either because of targeted blockings or blanket internet shutdowns, people suffer as they are left unable to communicate and access life-saving information during critical events and crises,” Krapiva says. WhatsApp says its encryption, which ensures nobody can snoop on your messages, including Meta, isn’t impacted by using a proxy.
WhatsApp isn’t the first messaging platform to allow proxy connections, but the platform’s scale makes it significant. Encrypted chat app Signal also allows people to set up and run proxy servers. It launched the service for Android in February 2021 and then on iOS in September 2022, both in response to Iran’s blocking of Signal.
WhatsApp says it is also launching proxy connections now because of the ongoing internet disruption in Iran. The country has been shutting down the internet for several months, following nationwide protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody. Iran’s internet blackouts and blocking of services, including WhatsApp, have further crippled its economy and drawn international scorn. (Analysts forecast that internet shutdowns cost the world $24 billion in 2022.)
The company says it started putting the capability for proxies to be used in WhatsApp in the final few months of 2022 and is launching it now as most people are using a version of its app that can support proxies. In its blog post, the company says internet disruptions, like Iran’s, “deny people’s human rights and cut people off from receiving urgent help.”