Iran, China blow? Internet shutdowns by authoritarian regimes will not prevent WhatsApp users from messaging, Meta confirms
Millions of WhatsApp users are now able to keep messaging, even if the Internet is blocked or disrupted by shutdowns by authoritarian regimes around the world.
This was announcement from Meta in a blog post on Thursday, when it said it has added proxy support to the latest version of WhatsApp because “there are many people who continue to be denied the ability to reach their loved ones because of internet shutdowns.”
Meta cited the recent protests in Iran, which began in September 2022 after 22 year old Mahsa Amini died whilst in the custody of Iran’s morality police, after she was arrested for “unsuitable attire”.
Eyewitnesses said that Amini had been severely beaten, which Iranian officials denied.
Amini’s death triggered a wave of protests across Iran, with some female demonstrators removing their hijab or publicly cutting their hair as acts of protest.
It is reported that over 500 people so far have been killed by Iranian security forces during the protests.
The Iranian government responded by restricting access to Meta’s Instagram and WhatsApp.
Iran also currently blocks YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Telegram, Snapchat, Medium, as well as some streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu.
Last year activists smuggled dozens of Starlink terminals into Iran so they keep communicating, after Elon Musk said he would activate Starlink services in Iran as part of a US government-backed effort to “advance internet freedom and the free flow of information” to Iranians.
In December Musk said nearly 100 Starlink internet terminals are now active in Iran, amidst ongoing protests and blocked network access in the country.
Now Meta and WhatsApp is seeking to keep communication channels open during connectivity shutdowns by authoritarian regimes via the use of proxy servers.
A proxy server is an intermediary between users and web services, and acts as a web filter that allow users to circumvent local restrictions and censorship.
“We’re mindful that just as we’ve celebrated the start to 2023 through private texts or calls, there are many people who continue to be denied the ability to reach their loved ones because of internet shutdowns,” said Meta.
“To help, today we’re launching proxy support for WhatsApp users all over the world,” it added. “What this means is we’re putting the power into people’s hands to maintain access to WhatsApp if their connection is blocked or disrupted.”
“Choosing a proxy enables you to connect to WhatsApp through servers set up by volunteers and organisations around the world dedicated to helping people communicate freely,” Meta said. “If you have the ability to help others connect, you can learn how to set up a proxy here.
Meta said that connecting via proxy maintains the high level of privacy and security that WhatsApp provides. It said people’s personal messages will still be protected by end-to-end encryption – “ensuring they stay between you and the person you’re communicating with and are not visible to anyone in between, not the proxy servers, WhatsApp, or Meta.”
“Our wish for 2023 is that these internet shutdowns never occur,” Meta concluded. “Disruptions like we’ve seen in Iran for months on end deny people’s human rights and cut people off from receiving urgent help. Though in case these shutdowns continue, we hope this solution helps people wherever there is a need for secure and reliable communication.”
It said the proxy option is now available in the settings menu for everyone running the latest version of its app.
In April last year over 60 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, the European Commission, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Taiwan, Japan, the Netherlands, and Ukraine, signed a political declaration to push for rules for the Internet – underpinned by democratic values.
However there was notable countries not among the signatories, including Russia, China, South Africa, and India.
The declaration is a modified version of the White House’s efforts from last year to create a coalition of democracies centred around a vision for an open and free web.
The declaration came as Russia continued its illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian state and its backers continue to carry out waves of cyberattacks and military attacks against Ukraine.