Human rights group Freedom House claimed that governments are blocking apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram due to their encryption features, while others like Skype are targeted as a way to protect the revenue of national telecommunications firms.
In a report titled “Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure,” Freedom House noted that encrypted apps make it difficult for authorities to obtain user data for law enforcement and national security.
They also attract users who are concerned about surveillance because they provide greater anonymity than voice and SMS services (that can be tracked due to SIM-card registration requirements) while several services prevent wiretapping and interception.
For instance in Brazil, which slipped from “Free” to “Partly Free” in the report’s internet freedom ranking, courts blocked WhatsApp for its failure to turn over user data in criminal investigations. The report said this shows “little respect for the principles of proportionality and necessity.”
Targeting social media and communication apps is also a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly during anti-government protests, which can have “untold social, commercial, and humanitarian consequences.”
Turkey came in the “Not Free” category as a result of multiple blockings of social media platforms and prosecutions of users, most often for offenses related to criticism of the authorities or religion.
These restrictions continued to escalate following the failed coup in July 2016, in spite of the role that such apps, most notably FaceTime, played in mobilising citizens against the coup, the study observed.
Authorities in several countries have also resorted to shutting down all internet access at politically contentious times just to prevent users from using certain apps.
Governments also often block text or audiovisual calling functions, which have eroded the business model and profit margins of traditional telecommunications companies.
WhatsApp most blocked app
WhatsApp faced the most restrictions, with 12 out of 65 countries blocking the entire service or disabling certain features, affecting millions of its one billion users worldwide.
Telegram, Viber, Facebook Messenger, LINE and Google Hangouts were also regularly blocked. Ten countries restricted access to platforms that enable voice and video calling over the internet, such as Skype and FaceTime.
“Incidents of blocking have had far-reaching effects, preventing family members from checking in during a crisis, activists from documenting police abuse during a protest, and individuals from communicating affordably with social and professional contacts abroad,” the report said.
The harm is often disproportionately felt by marginalised communities and minority groups, who are more likely to be cut off from critical information sources and the ability to advocate for their rights.
For example, in Ethiopia, protests in response to the government’s marginalisation of the Oromo people have been met with blocks on services including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter.
In Bangladesh, the authorities ordered the blocking of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber to prevent potential protests following a Supreme Court ruling in November that upheld death sentences for two political leaders convicted of war crimes. The longest block lasted 22 days.
Social media users also face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year.
Globally, 27 per cent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.