The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Web users’ online rights are on the decline worldwide as governments target messaging apps

(Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)
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Messaging apps are facing increased pressure from government authorities as online rights around the world are slipping, according to a Freedom House report released Monday.

Internet freedom declined for the sixth year in a row, the pro-democracy think tank's “Freedom on the Net”  report shows. The report looks at online access, censorship and surveillance in 65 countries around the world.

“In a new development, the most routinely targeted tools this year were instant messaging and calling platforms, with restrictions often imposed during times of protests or due to national security concerns,” the report says.

Twenty-four countries restricted access to social media platforms and communication tools between June 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016, according to the report — up from the 15 countries that Freedom House identified the previous year.

WhatsApp was the most commonly restricted service, with 12 countries blocking the app or disabling some of its features, the report says.

In some cases, governments appeared to be limiting access to popular communications tools to make it harder for activists and dissidents to organize, the report says. In Uganda, for example, officials told Internet service providers to block WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook during parts of the country’s presidential election period in February and then again in May around the inauguration, according to the report.

“In both instances, the unprecedented blocking worked to silence citizens’ discontent with the president’s 30-year grip on power and their efforts to report on the ruling party’s notorious electoral intimidation tactics,” the report says.

In another example, messaging app Telegram was blocked in Bahrain for several days around the fifth anniversary of a major protest. The government action was "likely to quash any plans for renewed demonstrations," the report said.

Brazil’s latest WhatsApp ban is pushing users to other encrypted messaging apps

Some services, including WhatsApp, earned the ire of governments because they use forms of encryption so strong that their developers can’t turn over the content of users’ messages, even for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

In Brazil, regional courts ordered blocks against WhatsApp three times in 2015 and 2016 “after it failed to turn over encrypted communications to local authorities during criminal investigations,” the report notes — despite parent company Facebook's insistence that it didn’t have access to the information sought by the courts. Those bans were among the reasons Brazil went from being categorized as having a “free” Internet last year to “partly free” in the new report.

Besides encryption, another reason communications apps were blocked or restricted was that their functions can cut into the profits of major state-run or private telecom companies, according to the report. “In the past year, restrictions to protect market interests escalated most prominently in the Middle East and North Africa,” the report says, citing restrictions in nations such as Morocco, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates.