18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Image: Wikimedia
China has a long history of attempting to control information by banning words on the web and social networks. But LINE's sheer size makes this latest particular attempt striking. Like WeChat and WhatsApp—which China has also reportedly attempted to gag—it offers users free multiplatform mobile communications, and its user base has been growing rapidly worldwide.
By reverse-engineering the Android app, Citizen Lab found that when it was registered to Chinese phone numbers, censorship functionality was enabled. Most of the banned keywords mention Chinese government officials, like controversial former party leader Hu Jintao, or controversial political events. Fifteen percent of the censored terms referenced the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Targets of Chinese aggression like the Falun Gong religious sect and Tibet were also blocked, as well as terms involving the Uyghur, a mostly Islamic people in China with a growing insurgency the government is keen to subdue.
“It is unclear how the content of LINE keyword lists are determined,” the Citizen Lab report states. "Despite the lack of information provided by LINE Corporation around its operations in China, it is clearly maintaining keyword filtering features for users in the country.”
Citizen Lab also notes that the chat app used an unencrypted 3G network up until last year, giving third parties—say, government surveillance agencies—few obstacles to capture data from users.
After first publishing the results of the study, the Canadian researchers reached out to LINE for official comment. They say they received a “terse” response:
“LINE had to conform to local regulations during its expansion into mainland China, and as a result the Chinese version of LINE, ‘LIANWO,’ was developed,” the app company said in a statement. “The details of the system are kept private, and there are no plans to release them to the public.”
In other words, the company's arguing that doing business in mainland China required conforming to the demands of the totalitarian Communist Party of China, which continues to use politically motivated censorship as a state weapon.
Though LINE could decide not to obey the government mandate, they would likely be denied access to the massive emerging Chinese market as a consequence. Therein lies the rub for mobile chat apps looking to do big business in Asia: gaining access to new markets can require complying with heavy-handed regimes and their questionable human rights records.