The Great Firewall of china is a vast internet surveillance and content-control system that prevents people in China from accessing certain websites and pages. It blocks content that’s critical of the Chinese government or that covers controversial political events, and its latest victim today is Whatsapp a messaging app used across the globe.
The last of Facebook’s major products still in china, was partly blocked by Chinese government on Tuesday, as Beijing broadly tightened its controls over the internet.
This censorship crackdown comes as the Communist Party struggles to control the fall out of the death of Nobel Peace Prize-winner and political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo who died in detention, as well as the lead-up to the 19th Communist Party Congress due to take place in this fall.
Users took to social media to complain about intermittent time-outs on the app, which began on Monday. On Tuesday morning, users found entire messages, including photos and audio files, weren’t being sent through.
WhatsApp, which had generally avoided major disruptions in China despite the full block of Facebook and Instagram, appears to have finally became a victim of those circumstances.
The last of Facebook’s major products still in china, whatsapp, was partly blocked by Chinese government on Tuesday.
— The Telegraff News (@omilosimon) July 20, 2017
The actions by the Chinese government are another setback for Facebook in a country that has been difficult for the world’s largest social network to crack. Its flagship site was blocked in 2009 after ethnic unrest in western China; Instagram followed in 2014 during protests that fall in Hong Kong.
The new cyber security rules, broad and vague, have left Western companies uncertain of how they will be applied and what impact they could have on a difficult operating environment. The government has put strong emphasis on the law, which could serve as a watershed for how the internet is managed and foreign companies are policed.
Paul Triolo, the head of geo-technology at Eurasia Group, said that a possible next step would be for China to target other encrypted messaging apps like Signal, pointing out that such apps “represent a small but growing and potentially important hole in the Great Firewall of china.”
“The ministries and support organizations that undergird the Great Firewall of china must constantly prove they can keep abreast of technological change, and encrypted messaging apps are just the latest in a long string of innovations that have drawn the attention of the technical wizards behind the Great Firewall,” Mr. Triolo said.
A Chinese censorship researcher known by his pseudonym Charlie Smith said authorities appeared to be blocking non-text WhatsApp messages wholesale precisely because they have not been able to selectively block content on the platform like they have with WeChat, which is produced by Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent and legally bound to cooperate with Chinese security agencies.
Because WhatsApp content is encrypted, “they have moved to brute censor all non-text content,” Smith said in an email. “It would not be surprising to find that everything on WhatsApp gets blocked, forcing users in China to use unencrypted, monitored and censored services like WeChat.”
The death of Liu Xiaobo who died in has brought to light the many censorship powers China has at its disposal, many of which most people have been unaware of.
Photos, mentions and subtle tributes to Liu were wiped or blocked all across Chinese Internet; the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which explores the intersection of IT communications, human rights and security, noted Liu’s death uncovered the very first instance of image filtering in private chats, on both WeChat Moments and in group chats.