WhatsApp in the crosshairs as Indonesia and Afghanistan beef up internet controls

As one of the world’s most popular encrypted messaging services, it is perhaps inevitable that WhatsApp is going to come under attack from time to time. But in the past few days, it has seen two separate Governments threatening to block it.

In Indonesia, the Government’s threat comes as part of their efforts to clamp down on obscene online content. As the world’s largest Islamic country, Indonesia already has a significant programme of online censorship in place.

As we have reported previously, many sites which are classed as ‘immoral’ under Indonesian laws are banned and the Government has also recently invested in an automated online censorship system in an effort to block an additional 30 million sites.

Naughty GIFs under fire in Indonesia

Now, it seems they are targeting online messaging services which permit the sharing of such content as well. The focus of their ire on this occasion appears to be Graphics Interchange Format or GIF files. At the start of this week, the Indonesian Government demanded that all online messaging services and search engines remove obscene GIF files from their service.

Semuel Pangerapan, a director general at Indonesia’s communication and informatics ministry said in a statement that representatives of all the tech companies would be summoned to a meeting with the Indonesian Government on the issue. “We will call all providers… to clean up their network,” he explained.

In specific reference to WhatsApp, Pangerapan added, “They have to follow the rules of the host”. In response to the statement, WhatsApp patiently tried to explain to the Indonesian authorities that because their service is encrypted, they are unable to monitor and remove files being sent over it.

WhatsApp spokesperson Jennifer Kutz said in a diplomatically phrased statement that the company “regularly [worked with] local entities to make sure our content reflects the cultural mores and legal requirements.”

However, if an agreement is not reached, the Indonesian Government is quite likely to block access to WhatsApp across the country. They have taken this action previously with other messaging services such as Telegram as well as video-sharing sites like Vimeo and Tumblr.

The extent of state censorship in Indonesia is one of the reasons why it has more VPN users than any other country in the world.

Afghanistan suspends WhatsApp and Telegram

Meanwhile, In Afghanistan, the Government has ordered the suspension of the country’s two most popular encrypted online messaging services, WhatsApp and Telegram. In a statement, Government officials claimed the suspension was to help resolve “technical difficulties” with the service.

Najib Nangyalay, a spokesperson for the Afghan telecommunications ministry insisted this was not a case of state censorship, telling the AFP that “We are testing a new technology and WhatsApp and Telegram will be temporarily blocked. It is not a blow to the freedom of communication in Afghanistan — we have access to Facebook, Twitter. We are committed to the freedom of expression.”

No details about the precise nature of the ‘technological difficulties’ have been revealed, but the country’s Acting Telecommunications Minister, Shahzad Aryobee rather mysteriously said that they were “considering to introduce a new technology” before going on to claim that Testing is “time-consuming” and required the temporary stoppage of both apps.

This stance has been mocked by many, with the consensus being that the Afghan government is never going to be able to develop a technology to counter that of an internationally renowned tech company.

The Afghan action appears most likely to be security-related. WhatsApp has proved a popular with the Taliban in recent years, while ISIS militants in the region are thought to use Telegram. But until further information emerges, it is impossible to say for sure what the Afghan government is up to.

Using a VPN

It is worrying time for the estimated 8 million internet users in Afghanistan, as well as the millions more in Indonesia. Encrypted messaging services allow them to communicate in private without fear of retribution for saying something wrong. They are tools employed by people to enjoy their right to freedom of expression.

But, as one expert in Afghanistan has pointed out “if they block [WhatsApp] people can access VPNs. He is right. Millions of Indonesians have already caught onto this. And if the Afghan regime does try to enact online censorship, the number of VPN users can be expected to skyrocket there too.

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