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China’s great internet firewall is now coming for WhatsApp

by David Gilbert
Jul 19 2017, 7:00am

The Chinese government has blocked certain features of Facebook’s encrypted messaging service, WhatsApp, inside the country — another sign of President Xi Jinping’s ever-tightening grip on internet use.

WhatsApp users and security researchers reported Tuesday that certain aspects of WhatsApp’s service were no longer working in China. Videos and images, as well as voice messages, were not being delivered. Text messages continued to work, however.

Until now, WhatsApp was the only Facebook product allowed to operate in China, with the social network’s main site banned in 2009 following ethnic unrest in western China. Instagram was blocked in 2014 in the wake of protests in Hong Kong.

It’s not clear why WhatsApp is now being blocked in China, but the government is preparing for the 19th Party Congress, to be held in a few months, a time typically associated with increased censorship online.

WhatsApp is not as popular as local service WeChat, but its end-to-end encryption that prevents messages being monitored makes it an appealing tool for certain groups of people, including activists, journalists, dissidents, and those seeking to communicate securely with the rest of the world.

According to researchers monitoring WhatsApp’s infrastructure, the Chinese government appears to be targeting the servers that route image, audio, and video files between users, while ignoring the servers handling text messages. There is no evidence the Chinese government is capable of decrypting the messages being sent.

The Chinese government said Tuesday that it was not speaking about the issue, and WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment on the situation.

The move doesn’t bode well for WhatsApp. When the Chinese government first started restricting Gmail use, it did so unevenly before rolling out a complete block, in 2014. The crackdown on WhatsApp is just the latest effort by the Chinese government to increase the country’s ability to filter and control what citizens access online, a system commonly known as the Great Firewall.

  • On Monday, a report by the the University of Toronto’s citizen lab revealed that the Chinese government had systematically scrubbed social media of references to Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died last week. The government’s control over the web allowed them to filter out images commemorating Liu in real time in one-on-one chats on the hugely popular messaging service WeChat. The findings reveal the extent of the government’s control over platforms like WeChat, which are legally bound to cooperate with Chinese security agencies.
  • On June 1, a new cybersecurity law went into effect in China, with the stated aim of boosting the protection of personal data online. However, critics warn this is just another part of the government’s efforts to control all aspects of the internet. It is also expected to make it harder for foreign companies to do business in China. One strand of the new law requires all companies to store data in China, and partner with a local company to do so, a move some have claimed will make it easier for the Chinese government to carry out espionage. Apple last week announced plans for a data center in China to comply with the new rules.
  • In August, the Communist Party will hold the 19th Party Congress, where top leadership positions are allocated. The recent moves to clamp down on content- sharing via WhatsApp and WeChat suggest that the party is once again preparing tighter restrictions on internet usage in the run-up to the summit. Five years ago, during the last Congress, the government limited access to Google — it was banned completely in 2014 — as well as restricting access to U.S. publications like the New York Times and Bloomberg.
  • Earlier this week, there was an unexpected victim of China’s censors, when it appeared that images of Winnie the Pooh were being filtered out of social media posts. Once again the Chinese government said nothing, but AA Milne’s character has in the past been used in online memes comparing the slow-witted, honey-loving bear to Xi.