Afghanistan Orders WhatsApp Blocked -- Update

Afghan authorities have ordered internet service providers to block Facebook Inc.'s WhatsApp, triggering condemnation from civil-liberties groups and protests from users on social media.

In a letter sent to service providers on Thursday, Afghanistan's Telecommunication Regulatory Authority didn't say why it was ordering the providers to shut WhatsApp, as well as Telegram, another encrypted messaging app, for 20 days "without delay."

The response to the order was immediate and sharply critical, particularly among Afghans for whom freedom of press and expression is one of the country's great accomplishments since a U.S.-led invasion forced the Taliban from power in 2001.

While state-owned Salaam Telecom blocked the apps, three private service providers -- MTN, Etisalat and Roshan -- refused, with an official at one saying compliance with the order would lead to more censorship.

WhatsApp is reporting normal messaging rates but said users may have faced access issues due to a global outage around 1 a.m. Pacific time Friday. "Earlier today, WhatsApp users globally had trouble accessing the app for about an hour. This issue has been fixed and we apologize for the inconvenience," a WhatsApp spokeswoman said.

Najib Sharifi, president of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, a press freedom group, said the ban wasn't in keeping with "the spirit of Afghanistan's constitution and stands against the laws of the country pertaining to freedom of expression and communication."

Others questioned the government's motives, especially suggestions that the ban was aimed at curbing use of the apps by the Taliban or one of the many other insurgent groups in the country.

"If it's really about security concerns, the government must understand how ridiculous this is," said Asif Ashna, a civil-liberties activist. "Terrorist groups know how to use apps and the internet, and can get around such bans to spread their propaganda."

As criticism of the ban went viral on social media late Thursday, a Taliban spokesman sent a message to a journalist, dryly noting: "In case WhatsApp doesn't work, this is my Viber number." Viber is another popular messaging app.

Where the order originated was unclear. One official for the National Directorate of Security, the country's intelligence agency, said the directive came from his agency because militant groups were using the apps. Another official in the agency, however, denied that.

In response to the furor, the government late Friday offered another explanation for the ban.

The Ministry of Communications, Information and Technology issued a statement saying it had received complaints about WhatsApp and Telegram and was shutting them temporarily to "improve the quality of the applications."

The statement didn't elaborate on the nature of the complaints, where they originated or how the government could improve the apps' quality, but it added, "The government is fully committed to freedom of speech and recognizes it as a civil right."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 03, 2017 18:30 ET (22:30 GMT)