WhatsApp's new feature could help Iranians bypass censors and coordinate protests during government-imposed internet blackouts
WhatsApp's move to offer access to proxy servers aims to dodge the impact of internet shutdowns, which it says "deny people's human rights."
WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Meta, is introducing a new feature to help users bypass internet controls imposed by repressive governments.
The move follows a string of internet shutdowns by Iranian authorities in an attempt to quash dissent and clamp down on anti-government protests.
WhatsApp wrote in a blog post on Thursday: "Disruptions like we've seen in Iran for months on end deny people's human rights and cut people off from receiving urgent help. In case these shutdowns continue, we hope this solution helps people wherever there is a need for secure and reliable communication."
On Twitter, WhatsApp announced the new feature in Persian, Iran's official language.
WhatsApp's new feature will allow users to go online using proxy servers, which can help mask their location and bypass government-imposed controls and restrictions.
This will enable people to keep using WhatsApp even if their connection is blocked or disrupted — and maintain contact with family, friends, or fellow protesters.
Users will have to find their own proxy servers, many of which are provided free by activists and aid organizations, per The Washington Post.
Protests against Iran's regime erupted nationwide following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022. Amini died in police custody after Iran's morality police arrested her for allegedly wearing her hijab "incorrectly."
Authorities have tried to clamp down on the protests by cutting off mobile data and blocking social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram, which is also owned by Meta.
Some government figures have even called for access to the internet to be blocked entirely — a strategy previously imposed by Iranian authorities in an attempt to quell protests in 2019.
Other countries including Sudan, Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda have also disrupted their citizens' access to internet services following unrest, per a United Nations report referenced by WhatsApp.
In 2021 Access Now, a charity that aims to defend "digital rights," documented at least 182 internet shutdowns in 34 countries.
Internet disruptions can have a significant impact on individuals and economies, leaving people unable to contact family members, work, or even access healthcare.
Deborah Brown, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the World Economic Forum: "Shutdowns restrict a range of human rights, from freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, to economic and social rights, as people rely on the internet for their livelihoods, education, and health."
WhatsApp is one of the world's most popular messaging apps, with more than 2 billion users in 180 countries.