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Launch of a Tool by WhatsApp to Combat Internet Censorship

Launch of a Tool by WhatsApp to Combat Internet Censorship. The encrypted messaging app is introducing proxy connections that can assist users in going online amid internet shutdowns in Iran.

The ability of citizens to access the internet is frequently one of the first things to go when oppressive governments want to control their populations. More than 900 times since 2016, 74 nations have cut off the internet for tens of millions of people.

Iran has recently cut off internet access to conceal violence against protesters. After its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia quickly tightened its censorship. Additionally, people in Myanmar were left in the dark by internet curfews.

At their worst, internet shutdowns can result in connections being completely cut off, while censorship measures can restrict access to particular websites or applications.

Many people believe that blocking access to the internet is a strategy used to violate people's human rights. There are numerous ways people can attempt to avoid censorship and internet outages, but there isn't a single straightforward method for instantly restoring connectivity for millions of users.

The number of tools that enable people to avoid censorship is growing. The end-to-end encrypted messenger used by more than 2 billion people each month, WhatsApp, from Meta, is currently enhancing its anti-censorship features.

People who are subject to censorship can use WhatsApp through proxy connections, which may enable them to communicate when a nation blocks the app, thanks to the company's efforts in this area.

In a blog post announcing the feature, the company writes, "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."

People can avoid censorship by using proxies, which essentially mask their traffic. Officials who block WhatsApp, for instance, are likely to prevent devices from communicating with WhatsApp's infrastructure.

When a user connects to a proxy server, WhatsApp receives the user's traffic after passing it through the proxy server. Filters and blocks that may have been put in place are avoided by the extra step.

Meta's tool, according to Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at internet rights organization Access Now, is a step in the right direction. People suffer when WhatsApp is unavailable because they can't communicate or access life-saving information during critical events and crises, according to Krapiva. "WhatsApp can be viewed as a critical infrastructure in many countries," she says.

According to WhatsApp, using a proxy has no effect on its encryption, which makes sure that no one, including Meta, can eavesdrop on your messages.

Despite not being the first messaging service to support proxy connections, WhatsApp is noteworthy due to its size. Using the encrypted chat app Signal, one can set up and maintain proxy servers.

In response to Iran's blocking of Signal, it introduced the service for Android in February 2021 and for iOS in September 2022.

WhatsApp claims that the ongoing internet outage in Iran is the reason it is now also launching proxy connections. Following widespread protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who passed away while in police custody, the nation has been blocking access to the internet for a number of months.

Iran's internet outages and service blocks, which include WhatsApp, have further harmed its economy and drew ire from other countries. (Analysts predict that in 2022, internet outages will cost the global economy $24 billion.)

According to the company, it began integrating the ability for proxies to be used in WhatsApp in the final few months of 2022 and is now making it available since the majority of users are already utilizing a version of the app that supports proxies. The company claims in a blog post that internet outages like the one in Iran "deny people's human rights and cut people off from receiving urgent help."

People require the information for the proxy in order to connect to a WhatsApp proxy. When proxies are active, you can typically find these by searching social media. (Proxies are useless when the internet is completely shut down and there is no connectivity.) The Storage and Data menu, which is located in the app's settings, is where users of WhatsApp's iOS and Android applications can enter proxy information.

WhatsApp has published comprehensive documentation on its GitHub page, advising users who want to set up proxy servers to use ports 80, 443, or 5222 and a domain or subdomain that points to the server's IP address.

The number of censorship bypass tools has increased along with the number of internet outages and shutdowns in recent years. The most popular methods for getting around governmental censorship, blocking, or filtering of apps and websites are the anonymity service Tor and VPNs.

However, new tools are also emerging. For instance, the CENO browser is based on peer-to-peer technology, which the organization claims lessens reliance on global networks, and Samizdat Online enables Russians to access blocked news websites without any technical knowledge.

According to Ksenia Ermoshina, a user experience researcher for CENO and a researcher with the Center for Internet and Society CNRS and Citizen Lab, WhatsApp's introduction of proxies may also help people communicate where the app is blocked. CENO has been widely used during Iran's shutdowns. Ermoshina claims that in 2018, when Russia attempted in vain to block the messaging app, proxies assisted in keeping Telegram online in that nation.

However, Ermoshina notes that proxies have some drawbacks. They "can significantly slow down your traffic, for calls, for file sharing, for example." In the event that authorities learn about proxies, connections through them may also be blocked.

VPNs and proxies are cat-and-mouse tools, according to Ermoshina. Their creators are constantly attempting to avoid censorship. The more proxy servers there are, the more difficult it is for governments to shut them all down.

A combination of anti-censorship tools will probably be helpful for those who want to avoid censorship. In the event of a future shutdown, people should, if at all possible, research the tools they intend to use and take into account any potential risks that may be specific to them.

According to Access Now's Krapiva, different users will have different needs, threat models, and technical skills, so a single tool won't work for everyone. "However, I do hope that Meta will make sure that they give their users guidance on what proxy servers can and cannot do, as well as how to use them securely, as the types of people who are most likely going to need this feature also tend to be the most at risk."