WeChat study highlights China’s sophisticated censorship

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If you haven’t heard of the messaging app WeChat, then you obviously don’t know anyone living in China. WeChat is the Chinese version of WhatsApp and for those people living behind the Chinese Communist Party’s Great Firewall, it is one of the most popular ways to send instant messages and communicate.

It is operated by Tencent, one of China’s internet behemoths who also run Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, along with many other Chinese online services and are, by value, the biggest internet company in Asia.

Censorship without reason

In China, you don’t get to the pinnacle of your sector without close links to the regime, and WeChat, along with all of their services has always complied with state surveillance and censorship demands.

It used to be that WeChat would inform users when their posts were being censored, but in recent years this has changed. Now the post simply doesn’t deliver, with no reason being given to either the sender or the recipient.

The change has been revealed in a study of WeChat by CitizenLab, which is a research unit based at the University of Toronto in Canada. They believe that failing to inform users when a post is being censored is a dangerous move and a further attack on online privacy in China.

“By removing notice of censorship, WeChat sinks deeper into a dark hole of unaccountability to its users,” said the Director of CitizenLab, Ron Deibert. He goes on to note that the impact on people’s lives in China could be huge as WeChat is used there for various different purposes included making payments, ordering food, getting a cab, and accessing news.

Group Chats censored

Their research also uncovered a sliding scale of censorship within WeChat depending on how accessible the message was.

So, if you are exchanging private messages with just one other person there is little or no censorship applied. The same is true for all users who are registered to use WeChat with non-Chinese mobile phone numbers.

But in group chats, a very popular form of communication in China, it is a very different story. In tests, any reference to sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Falun Gong, and some government officials, just disappear.

There is also evidence that the censorship is being applied in more intelligent way these days. For example, a reference to June 4th (the date of Tiananmen Square) is ok, but a reference combined with terms like democracy movement will be blocked.

CitizenLab says that this is evidence that censorship has now moved beyond simple blacklisting of terms, and that the Chinese authorities are now using AI and complex algorithms to apply intelligent censorship in real time.

Jack Qiu, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Globe and Mail that  “this is a new generation of censorship technologies. And the backbone is an intelligent system – what is commonly known as machine learning. So, the censorship system can learn by itself.”

The focus on group chats also suggests the priority for censors in China is not to identify individuals with dissident opinions as much as stop them from being able to organise into groups. This is in keeping with a long-held fear by the Chinese Communist Party that if the people ever decided to rise up against them, the regime could be swiftly overthrown.

Censoring overseas

CitizenLab also found evidence that WeChat was censoring overseas users as well as those in China. If you register your account with an overseas number, you are likely to encounter little censorship. But, if you register with a Chinese contact number and then change it to an overseas one, the censorship remains.

This means that any Chinese students or expats based overseas, or indeed foreigners who registered their accounts in China, are subject to censorship even though they are not in the country.

What this tells us is that Tencent is following a pattern in China of building dual systems, which censor Chinese citizens, but also enable companies to try and enter overseas markets.

Such is China’s reputation for online censorship these days, that few non-Chinese citizens ever make use of services such as WeChat, but there is little reason why that couldn’t change if people don’t take their right, and that of others around the world, to online freedom seriously.

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