WhatsApp is introducing a new feature designed to help users bypass government-enforced internet shutdowns.
The update lets people connect to the messaging platform via proxy servers – an alternate route for those whose direct access is blocked.
Rather than connecting directly to the desired website or service, a user connects to a proxy, which essentially performs as an intermediary for the data passing between them.
WhatsApp owner Meta said it had taken the decision in response to internet shutdowns in countries like Iran, where protests have raged for several months following the death of Mahsa Amini.
The 22-year-old died in September after being detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly violating its strict dress code.
Since then, the Iranian regime has activated an internet “kill-switch”, cutting off access to services including Instagram and WhatsApp in a bid to curtail the organisation of demonstrations.
Other authoritarian regimes have enforced similar shutdowns in the past, such as to tackle protests in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since a coup almost two years ago.
How will WhatsApp by proxy server work?
The option to connect via a proxy server will be in WhatsApp’s settings.
Users in impacted countries will be able to enter the name of a server and use it to connect to the internet.
WhatsApp suggests searching social media or search engines for trusted sources that have created a proxy.
In a blog post, the company said many proxies had been set up by volunteers and groups worldwide to help affected people “communicate freely”, but would also offer guidance on how users can set up their own.
The firm said connecting via proxy would maintain the app’s privacy and security features, including protecting messages via end-to-end encryption.
HOW TO ACCESS WHATSAPP BY PROXY
WhatsApp has outlined instructions for how to connect to a proxy, either on iPhone or Android.
In both cases, users should make sure that they’re using the most current version of WhatsApp.
On Android, in the chats tab, tap “more options”, “settings”, and then “storage and data”. To get to that stage on iPhone, go straight to WhatsApp’s settings tab.
Once in “storage and data”, tap “proxy”, “use proxy”, “set proxy”, before entering the desired address.
Upon tapping “save”, a checkmark will show if the connection is successful – a failed connection may indicate the proxy has been blocked.
‘A meaningful step’ to help those who ‘face censorship’
Research by internet monitor NetBlocks following Ms Amini’s death found that Iran’s government was regularly imposing an online curfew during protests.
It was an attempt not just to neuter communication between Iranians, but also contact with the outside world.
NetBlocks founder Alp Toker told Sky News that WhatsApp’s announcement was “a meaningful step towards helping Iranians and others who face censorship”.
He said: “The approach is sound, and it effectively ‘decentralises’ the part of WhatsApp’s infrastructure that is most vulnerable to filtering at Iran’s national gateway.”
“Although the Signal messenger app previously championed a similar approach, it’s still significant that a major company like Meta is following Signal’s lead and calling for volunteers to help users in challenging environments access WhatsApp,” he added.
Inside protests that have sent Iran to ‘verge of explosion’
Could regimes get around proxy servers?
Some have suggested that proxy servers do not offer a foolproof solution to internet shutdowns.
Professor Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey, told Sky News that regimes themselves could theoretically set up proxy servers and conduct “man in the middle attacks to eavesdrop on messages”.
Users in a country like Iran would want to ensure that the proxy server they are connecting to is not malicious.
He added: “Whether the proxy you connect to is running Meta’s code run by a ‘volunteer’ is something I assume you have to take on trust.
“And trust is in short supply in certain parts of the world.”
Connecting to a proxy server also requires system-level access to the internet – if your phone has no service, then you can’t connect to a proxy server.