WhatsApp Launches Proxy Tool to Fight Internet Censorship

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.”

To connect to a WhatsApp proxy, people need to have the proxy’s details. These can usually be found, when proxies are running, by searching social media. (Proxies aren’t effective during full internet shutdowns where there is no connectivity). Proxy details can be entered in WhatsApp’s iOS and Android apps through the Storage and Data menu, which is found in the app’s settings. WhatsApp says people wanting to set up proxy servers can use ports 80, 443, or 5222, and a domain or subdomain that points to the server’s IP address—it has published detailed documentation on its GitHub page. 

As the number of internet shutdowns and disruptions has increased in recent years, the available censorship circumvention tools have risen as well. Most commonly, anonymity service Tor and VPNs are used to get around government censorship, blocking, or filtering of apps and websites. However, new tools are also appearing: Samizdat Online allows Russians to access blocked news websites without any technical knowledge, and the CENO browser is built on peer-to-peer sharing technology, which the organization says reduces the reliance on international networks.

Ksenia Ermoshina, a user experience researcher for CENO and researcher with the Center for Internet and Society CNRS and Citizen Lab, says CENO has been widely used during Iran’s shutdowns, and WhatsApp’s introduction of proxies may also help people communicate where the app is blocked. Ermoshina says proxies helped to keep Telegram online in Russia in 2018 when the country unsuccessfully tried to block the messaging app.

There are some limitations to proxies though, Ermoshina says. “They can slow down your traffic considerably, in terms of calls, for example, or file sharing.” Connections via proxies can also be blocked if authorities discover their details. “VPNs and proxies are part of cat-and-mouse tools,” Ermoshina says. Their developers are always trying to evade censors. The more people that run proxy servers, the harder it is for governments to take them all down.

For people who are looking to avoid censorship, it is likely that a mix of anti-censorship tools will be useful. People should research the tools they are planning to use in the event of a future shutdown, if possible, and consider any risk that may be unique to them. “Different users will have different needs, threat models, and technical skills, so one tool will not fit all,” Access Now’s Krapiva says. “I do hope that Meta will ensure that they provide guidance to their users on what proxy servers can and cannot do, however, and how to use them securely, as the kinds of people who are likely going to be needing this feature the most will also tend to be the most at risk.”

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