WhatsApp users can now stay connected even during internet shutdowns and outages thanks to a new update.
The messaging app has introduced a free proxy support directly within its platform for all users that can be used as an alternative method to send and receive messages when direct access to the app is blocked.
WhatsApp says the launch will help people living in countries like Iran "who continue to be denied the ability to reach their loved ones because of internet shutdowns."
Citizens living under restricted internet freedoms are used to turning to VPN services to bypass blocks. However, this move from a big company like WhatsApp could set a precedent in the fight for a truly open web.
The Meta-owned provider is now urging anyone with the right skills to volunteer for setting up new proxy servers and help people to communicate freely.
We continue to fight for your right to communicate freely and privately. Now, when connecting to WhatsApp directly is not possible, you can stay connected around the world through a server set up by volunteers and organizations dedicated to helping others communicate freely.January 5, 2023
"WhatsApp exists to connect the world privately and we hope this solution helps users all over the world when internet shutdowns stand in the way of their ability to communicate securely with loved ones," the company added.
"We put the power in your hands," tweeted WhatsApp in Persian as part of the thread introducing the new feature, with Iran's ongoing crackdown on social media to silence dissidents a significant motivation behind the update.
Authorities have been cutting off access to popular platforms including WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook since September, when a wave of protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini broke across the country.
Sadly, this isn't an isolated case. Internet shutdowns have become a common practice into the hands of governments in times of protests, conflicts and even elections. From Myanmar, Russia and Kazakhstan: there have been over 50 instances across 16 countries last year.
Such blackouts have huge consequences for internet users. They undermine people's civil liberties, while allowing governments to hide human rights violations. They even exacerbate social inequalities hindering people to access online services, costing billions to the countries' economy on the way.
A proxy server works as a gateway between your device and the website or service you want to access.
This means that when you connect to a WhatsApp proxy, all the requests to send and receive messages will pass through such server first while circumventing the "kill-switch" enforced by the government trying to disrupt the normal internet access.
WhatsApp assures that using a proxy will not affect the usual level of security and privacy in place. End-to-end encryption will still protect all users' messages and calls.
"Our wish for 2023 is that these internet shutdowns never occur. Disruptions like we’ve seen in Iran for months on end deny people’s human rights and cut people off from receiving urgent help.
"Though in case these shutdowns continue, we hope this solution helps people wherever there is a need for secure and reliable communication."
How to use WhatsApp proxy servers
WhatsApp recommends looking on social media or search engines for trusted sources who have created a proxy. It also calls whoever is setting up such secure servers to directly share these addresses with people struggling to access the app when possible.
For connecting to one of WhatsApp proxy servers, you should first make sure your device is running the latest version of the app. Then, follow the step-by-step guide below:
- Head on the Settings tab;
- Click on Storage and Data, then on Proxy;
- Tap on Use Proxy and then Set Proxy;
- Enter the proxy address you wish to connect to and click Save.
A green check mark will appear in case the connection is successful. If you're still unable to send or receive messages, try with a different proxy as the one selected might be blocked.
These proxy addresses are set up by volunteers and organizations committed to help people living under limited internet freedom to access the internet without limitations.
This means that everyone with the necessary skills can do their part in the fight against internet blackouts worldwide.
"To help people reconnect to WhatsApp, you can set up a proxy using a server with ports 80, 443 or 5222 available and a domain name (or subdomain) that points to the server’s IP address," wrote the provider in a blog post.
More details on documentation and source code are available on GitHub for anyone to review.
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to email@example.com