Indonesia threatens WhatsApp blockage as Afghanistan backs down from its threat

Posted on Nov 6, 2017 by David Meyer

WhatsApp is really getting under the skin of the authorities in certain Asian and African countries. Just in the last couple days, there has been a move to block the service in Indonesia, and Afghan authorities have had to deny reports that they were planning to do the same. Last month it was China, and shortly before that it was Cameroon.

The reasons for these shutdown attempts are varied, though they all point to the same basic issue: the supposed negative effect of unfettered communication on social order. So let’s examine these recent incidents more closely, starting with the latest threat.

On Monday, Semuel Pangerapan, the director general of Indonesia’s communications ministry, said WhatsApp would be blocked within 48 hours if the platform did not expunge “obscene” GIFs that are provided by third parties. The GIF keyboard provider Tenor has already been blocked in the country, but people can access such services through the popular messaging app, which has around 69 million users in Indonesia.

The core problem here, of course, is that WhatsApp’s messages are encrypted, so the service provider doesn’t know what people are putting into them. So WhatsApp has been telling the Indonesian authorities to go talk to the third-party GIF providers.

Here’s what WhatsApp said:

“We are not able to monitor GIFs on WhatsApp since content is end-to-end encrypted. We’ve directed the Indonesia government to work with these third-party providers to review their content.”

Pangerapan is not amused. “The GIFs appeared in their apps. Why do we have to be the one speaking to the third party? They are supposed to be the ones managing it,” he said.

A few months ago, Indonesia threatened to ban the encrypted messaging app Telegram, this time over “negative” content such as terrorist propaganda – remember, Telegram isn’t just for direct messaging; it’s also for publishing messages to a broad audience, through its channel system. However, the company reached an agreement with the Indonesian authorities that saw the ban threat lifted.

Speaking of which, a couple days ago Afghan media reported that the authorities there wanted to ban both WhatsApp and Telegram, in order to hinder private communication between members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

However, on Monday Afghan government spokesman Javid Faisal took to social media to impress upon people that no, there was no social media ban being contemplated. He explicitly said that WhatsApp and Telegram would stay up in the country.

Here’s hoping that the Afghan authorities prove more trustworthy than those in Cameroon. At the end of September, despite having just promised not to block any social media in the country’s English-speaking regions, the Cameroon government did precisely that, nixing access to WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. People reportedly had to use VPNs to access their social media.

And then the government just blocked the internet altogether.

Here’s the promise:

And here’s the reality. As was the case for a whopping 93 days at the start of this year, the authorities killed the internet in Anglophone regions as they attempted to quell unrest by those who are dissatisfied with being treated badly by the government of the majority-Francophone country.

The Cameroonian government had pledged to the United Nations back in April that it would never again block the internet in the English-speaking provinces. But hey, there was an awkward anniversary on October 1 – that of the reunification of the Anglophone and French-speaking regions 56 years ago – and dissent had to be stamped out.

Later that month, meanwhile, China had its big Communist Party Congress, and naturally that also required a social media crackdown. In this case, WhatsApp was blocked and even WeChat was disrupted, with users being unable to change their profile pictures “due to system maintenance reasons” (or, more likely, to stop pictographic displays of dissent that automated censorship systems could less easily pick up).

At the same time, people also reported that VPN apps, which might have helped people bypass some of these blocks, were being disrupted in China.

According to the NGO Access Now, there were 55 documented internet shutdowns and app blockages in 2016, and 61 in the first three quarters of this year alone. Judging by what’s been going on in the last couple months, the total for this year could look pretty dismal indeed.

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