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WhatsApp adds proxy server feature to bypass internet censorship


WhatsApp, the popular messaging app owned by Meta, has introduced a feature to help users circumvent attempts to disrupt access to its services as repressive governments around the world increasingly use internet surveillance to suppress dissent.

The messaging service will allow people to configure software to access the Internet through proxy servers that act as intermediaries between users and Internet services, helping to mask traffic and evade surveillance. (Users will have to explore their own proxy servers, which are provided for free by volunteers and organizations around the world.) The company specifically mentioned Iran, which has begun brutally hacking its security measures and disrupting residents’ access to WhatsApp and other Meta platforms. Instagram — After anti-government protests began in September.

Facebook’s sister company, WhatsApp, is not the first service to support Internet users living under censorship. But its move is significant because it is the most popular messaging service in many countries. The service claims to have more than 2 billion users in 180 countries.

“Our dream for 2023 is that this internet shutdown never happens,” the company said, adding that it hopes its solution will help in the event of a shutdown. Also WhatsApp announced Launching a new feature in Farsi, the language used in 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 easier to access and connecting people with common grievances. He noted that such actions mainly reflect the hopes of those living outside the country to give more impetus to the protests.

WhatsApp cited a recent United Nations report on internet shutdowns that cited outages in Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Sudan, where rights violations and poverty have fueled popular unrest. According to Internet services company Surfshark, at least 44 governments have imposed internet blackouts in the five years to 2022, adding that regimes are increasingly turning to less disruptive censorship measures, such as controlling specific websites and services.

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Providers of proxy servers and virtual private networks have a history of helping people evade government-sponsored internet surveillance. (VPNs and proxies have some similarities, but the former also encrypts data.) The use of such services skyrocketed in 2012 when Tehran imposed a partial internet blackout. WhatsApp rival Signal, which was founded last year by an encryption advocate and emphasizes privacy in its marketing, said it would support volunteers in setting up proxy servers for people in Iran.

WhatsApp said people who access its service through proxy servers will have the same “high level of privacy and security” offered to other users, including default end-to-end encryption. But it has also been criticized by privacy advocates for sharing certain customer data with other Meta companies. The platform says it evaluates requests to share account details from non-US law enforcement agencies based on “whether the requests meet internationally recognized standards, including human rights, due process and the rule of law.”

While WhatsApp’s new feature aims to help people in developing economies circumvent repressive regimes, its corporate sibling Facebook has a history of weak moderation controls that are vulnerable to abuse and misinformation at the hands of authoritarian governments and other bad actors. The Washington Post reports. . A group of Rohingya refugees sued Facebook for $150 billion in 2021, alleging that its algorithm fueled hate speech and helped perpetuate acts of genocide by the military junta in Myanmar.

The company declined to comment on the lawsuits at the time, but Myanmar’s authoritarian government now relies heavily on internet shutdowns to hide its brutality against democracy activists and other civilians, rights groups said. Meta did not immediately return a request for comment early Friday.

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