WhatsApp is launching a proxy tool to combat internet censorship

WhatsApp isn’t the first messaging platform to allow proxy connections, but the scale of the platform makes it significant. The encrypted chat app Signal also allows people to create and run proxies. It started the service Android in February 2021 and then on iOS in September 2022both in response to Iran’s blocking of Signal.

WhatsApp says it is now also running proxy connections due to ongoing internet outages 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 predicted that Internet outages It cost the world $24 billion in 2022.)

The company says it started using the proxy feature on WhatsApp in the last few months of 2022 and is rolling it out now because most people are using the version of its app that can support proxies. In a blog post, the company said internet outages like those in Iran “deny people their human rights and deny people access to emergency care.”

To connect to WhatsApp proxy, people need to have the proxy details. These can usually be found when proxies are working by searching social networks. (Proxies are not effective during total internet outages where there is no connection). Proxy data can be entered in WhatsApp’s iOS and Android apps through the Storage and Data menu in the app’s settings. WhatsApp says people who want to set up proxy servers can use ports 80, 443 or 5222 and the domain or subdomain that points to the server’s IP address. he has published detailed documentation on it. GitHub page.

As the number of internet outages and outages has increased in recent years, so have the tools available to bypass censorship. Most commonly, the anonymity service Tor and VPNs are used for government censorship, blocking or filtering apps and websites. However, new tools are also emerging. Samizdat Online allows Russians to access blocked news sites without any technical knowledge, and CENO browser is built on peer-to-peer exchange technology that the organization says reduces dependence on international networks.

Ksenia Ermoshina, a CENO user experience researcher and researcher at the CNRS Center for Internet and Society and Citizen Lab, said CENO was widely used during the Iranian blackouts, and WhatsApp’s implementation of proxies could also help people communicate where the application is blocked. Ermoshina says proxies helped keep Telegram online in Russia in 2018 country tried unsuccessfully to block the messaging app.

However, there are some limitations with proxies, says Ermoshina. “They can significantly slow down your traffic, for example in terms of calls or file sharing.” Connections through proxies can also be blocked if authorities discover their details. “VPNs and proxies are part of the cat-and-mouse tools,” says Ermoshina. Their developers always try to avoid censorship. The more people run proxy servers, the harder it will be for governments to remove them all.

For people looking to avoid censorship, it’s likely that a mix of anti-censorship tools will be useful. People should research the tools they plan to use in the event of a future outage, if possible, and consider any risks that may be specific to them. “Different users will have different needs, threat models and technical skills, so one tool won’t fit all,” says Access Now’s Krapiva. “I hope Meta will make sure they guide their users on what proxy servers can and can’t do anyway, and how to use them safely, because people who are likely to will need this feature the most. also tends to be the most dangerous.”

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