China Blocks WhatsApp in the Latest Crackdown on Internet Freedom

July 18, 2017 7:09 pm Last Updated: August 18, 2017 4:21 pm

Amidst the Chinese regime’s ever-escalating crackdown on free speech and freedom of the internet, WhatsApp has become the latest victim, as users in China report that the private messaging app has been blocked by the Chinese regime.

Numerous reports from WhatsApp users inside China indicate that the app became partially blocked beginning the night of July 17, as photos and videos sent by users were no longer reaching their intended recipients. At that time, users reported that text messages still went through normally. Users have since reported that even text messages were blocked.

The communist regime has long blocked other popular Western social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube with its Great Firewall, the unofficial name for the sophisticated internet censorship system used to control all aspects of online activity in China.

Users can still use a virtual private network (VPN) to send text and media content through WhatsApp, just as with other blocked Western websites and applications. The use of VPNs to circumvent censorship adds extra cost and inconvenience to the users, however, and Beijing has also started cracking down on VPN service providers as of late.

Many WhatsApp users in China reacted angrily to the latest ban on their use of the messaging tool. Some say the authorities are essentially cutting off China from the rest of the world’s internet, according to the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily.

Before the blocking on July 17, WhatsApp had been one of the few remaining messaging apps available for users in China that was not controlled by the regime. WeChat, the dominant messaging application in China with hundreds of millions of users, is owned by the Chinese company Tencent.

The dominance of WeChat has been widely attributed to the company’s close collaboration with the Chinese regime in implementing self-censorship and surveillance mechanisms in the app.

According to Citizen Lab, a Canadian research laboratory, WeChat performs censorship on the server side; messages sent through the app must pass through a remote server that detects an ever-evolving list of keywords earmarked for censorship.

A 2016 survey done by Amnesty International that ranks the world’s most popular messaging apps in terms of privacy protection for users gave WeChat a score of 0 out of 100, meaning that users of WeChat receive little or no encryption protection for their communications and the app is completely exposed to censorship and surveillance by the Chinese regime. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, received a score of 73 out of 100.