WhatsApp has introduced a feature that will make it harder for governments and other state actors to block its traffic. Before this new feature came into effect WhatsApp was relatively easy to block as governments could easily identify the IP addresses belonging to Meta, the company that owns Facebook and WhatsApp and block them. The Zimbabwean government has done this in the past during times of turmoil such as in January of 2019. The government accused people of using WhatsApp to cause chaos and unrest.
How does the new feature work to prevent blocking?
Generally, governments have control over internet service providers that operate in their territories. For example in Zimbabwe internet service providers have to follow the dictates of the government. In the past, the government of Zimbabwe would order companies such as Econet that provide internet services to block all the computer addresses (known as IP addresses) belonging to WhatsApp/Meta/Facebook. That stops the app on your phone from being able to connect to WhatsApp servers. This would mean you would no longer be able to communicate using WhatsApp as it relies on being able to reach these servers in order to send messages.
One way around such blocks has been to use VPN services such as those of Surfshark. A VPN unblocks traffic because it re-routes your traffic through another gateway computer on the internet. They work very well but they require you to pay the VPN provider in addition to you paying for the internet and some ISPs can detect certain VPN protocols and block them. This again happened in 2019 when the government ordered internet service providers to block VPN traffic. The results were rather mixed but in the end even more people could not access WhatsApp.
The new feature being proposed by WhatsApp is a bit different but the idea is not very different from the use of a VPN. Basically, WhatsApp now allows you to use what is known as a proxy to access WhatsApp servers. This means that WhatsApp can now connect to its servers by connecting through another computer on the internet. All that is needed to unblock WhatsApp would be:
- Create a proxy server outside the jurisdiction of the company that’s blocking WhatsApp. For example, you can have a South African proxy server. The Zimbabwean government cannot order the South African government to block WhatsApp so those computers can still access WhatsApp without restrictions.
- A Zimbabwean WhatsApp user can then connect to the proxy server in South Africa. Their WhatsApp can now connect to WhatsApp servers by relaying through South Africa.
- It’s hard for the Zimbabwean government to identify and block all of the proxy servers. Unlike WhatsApp with a limited set of IP addresses, virtually any foreign IP address could be a proxy.
- Unlike VPN which has a distinct fingerprint proxies often carry normal traffic that is impossible to distinguish from normal internet traffic.
It sounds very complicated if you are not familiar with how the internet works beneath the surface but trust me when I tell you that after this governments will have a much harder time stopping people from using WhatsApp. The only feasible solution for them would be to switch the whole internet off. The Zimbabwean government did that too in 2019 but they quickly learnt that the country cannot function without the internet as everything from Ecocash payments and bank transfers stopped working.