In a digital game of cat and mouse, “tens of millions” of individuals are employing clandestine methods to access WhatsApp in countries where the app is prohibited, according to statements from the platform’s CEO Will Cathcart.

Cathcart disclosed to BBC News the extent of users who have circumvented bans imposed by regimes in countries such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, and most recently, China. Despite governmental efforts to block access to the encrypted messaging service, users have resorted to technical workarounds, including virtual private networks (VPNs) and WhatsApp’s own proxy service introduced last year.

The accessibility struggle intensified in April when China directed Apple to remove WhatsApp from its AppStore for Chinese users, marking a shift in the tech giant’s approach. Cathcart expressed regret over Apple’s decision, emphasising the limitations faced by users when a platform succumbs to government pressure.

While Android users can still access WhatsApp through unofficial channels, the crackdown on digital freedoms extends beyond WhatsApp to other encrypted platforms like Signal and banned apps such as Telegram and Threads.

Cathcart’s remarks come at a critical juncture for internet freedom, as Western values of an open internet face mounting challenges. He stressed the importance of technology platforms in promoting liberal democracy values but acknowledged the erosion of these ideals in the face of authoritarian surveillance and censorship.

The global debate on internet privacy and encryption remains unsettled, with governments like the UK contemplating measures to weaken encryption protocols for law enforcement purposes. Cathcart reiterated the significance of privacy in digital communication and the ongoing battle to preserve it amid increasing government scrutiny.

As geopolitical tensions mount, with the US considering banning Chinese-owned TikTok citing national security concerns, the struggle for digital freedom is set to intensify. Cathcart’s reflections underscore the enduring significance of privacy and encryption in safeguarding individual liberties in an increasingly surveilled digital landscape.