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Tech News : Millions Defy WhatsApp Bans

In a recent BBC World Service interview, Head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, claimed that tens of millions of people in countries where WhatsApp has been banned continue to use it.

Where Is WhatsApp Banned And Why? 

WhatsApp is banned Iran and North Korea, has been blocked at times in Syria, Senegal, and Guinea, and recently China banned iPhone users from downloading the app. Also, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates restrict certain features of the app.

WhatsApp faces bans and restrictions in these countries mainly due to concerns regarding its end-to-end encryption, which prevents governments from monitoring or intercepting messages sent through the platform. The encryption feature undermines authorities’ abilities to surveil communications for security purposes, potentially allowing for the spread of dissent or undesirable information. Also, WhatsApp’s widespread popularity makes it a powerful tool for activities such as organising protests or disseminating information, posing challenges to governments seeking to control the flow of information and maintain societal order. Consequently, countries with authoritarian regimes or strict censorship laws are opting to ban or restrict WhatsApp to maintain control over communication channels and uphold state authority.

Evidence of Tens of Millions Still Using It 

Mr Cathcart says the fact that WhatsApp can see the registered phone numbers of users, plus anecdotal reports of people using WhatsApp, have enabled WhatsApp to: “look at some of the countries where we’re seeing blocking and still see tens of millions of people connecting to WhatsApp”.  

Apple 

In the interview, Mr Cathcart highlighted how China ordered Apple to block Chinese iPhone users from downloading WhatsApp from the AppStore in April was a “choice Apple has made” but stressed that Android users there can still download it without going through official shops.

China has also banned another end-to-end encrypted app, Telegram, and has asked Apple to remove microblogging app Threads from its app store due to political content that mentions the Chinese president.

VPNs 

Mr Cathcart also pointed the role that virtual private networks (VPNs) and WhatsApp’s proxy service have had in keeping WhatsApp accessible.

Free Internet Battle 

Mr Cathcart also highlighted how the UK government’s battle over several years to ban end-to-end encryption in apps like WhatsApp to allow police to read criminals’ messages, and the US forcing TikTok to be sold or banned (for national security reasons) are indicators of the growing battle for a free Internet.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

For businesses, the ongoing saga surrounding end-to-end encrypted apps like WhatsApp has implications for operations, security, and ethics. As highlighted by Will Cathcart, the widespread use of WhatsApp in countries with authoritarian regimes shows its critical role as a secure communication platform for individuals facing oppressive surveillance and censorship. In such environments, where privacy and freedom of expression are under constant threat, encrypted apps serve as a lifeline for both personal and professional interactions.

However, the bans and restrictions imposed by these governments highlight the tension between security and freedom in the digital age. By targeting encrypted platforms, governments essentially seek to exert control over information flow and suppress dissent, often at the expense of individual liberties and privacy rights. For businesses operating in (or collaborating with partners in) such regions, these restrictions pose significant challenges, potentially jeopardising the confidentiality of sensitive communications and data.

Also, the battle over end-to-end encryption extends beyond geopolitical borders, shaping the broader landscape of internet freedom and digital rights. Efforts by governments like the UK’s to undermine encryption in the name of law enforcement raise serious questions about the balance between security measures and civil liberties. Any compromise to encryption standards not only undermines the privacy and security of users but also sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the integrity of the digital ecosystem.