WhatsApp users in China woke up to the shock of a partial block on the popular messaging app on Tuesday. Users and security researchers reported that a few functions of the chat app were not working. However, some of the features were reported to be restored later, and users could exchange photos and clips on the app.
Is the government to blame for blocking WhatsApp?
According to the South China Morning Post, the impact of blocking WhatsApp was different in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with Shanghai users being hit the most. Several users from Guangzhou reported no issue in sending and receiving messages, sound clips and pictures, both within the region and outside.
Nadim Kobeissi, a cryptography researcher in Paris, stated that the Great Firewall was only blocking WhatsApp servers that facilitate media between two users, whereas all other servers were left untouched. According to Kobeissi, even voice messages seemed to be blocked at one time, notes the Independent. However, whether China had anything to do with it could not be established.
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Interestingly, Chinese Foreign Spokesman Lu Kang stated that he had no information on any such development. There was no comment from Facebook on the development.
Why was WhatsApp blocked?
The Chinese government has been practicing tough surveillance on social media and messaging platforms for some time now as it prepares for the 19th Communist Party Congress, a politically sensitive event that is likely to consolidate President Xi Jinping’s authority.
As the government beefs up surveillance, more and more consumers are relying on virtual private networks (VPNs), a technology that lets users route their data overseas and out of the watchful eyes of the government. However, the Chinese government has started picking on this technology lately, notes BusinessTimes.
Although the presence of WhatsApp is sparse in Mainland China, it has a loyal user base that seeks greater privacy features in messaging to remain low on the government’s surveillance radar. Facebook’s WhatsApp offers just that, compared to the popular app WeChat, which the government can use however it wants, according to Toronto-based Citizen Lab.
Charlie Smith, a co-founder of GreatFire.org, which tracks blockages, stated, “The Chinese authorities want to be able to monitor all communication on the internet.”
Smith feels that blocking some of the features of WhatsApp is just a part of the government’s censorship master plan, notes BusinessTimes.
Tough luck for Facebook
China has long maintained that any social networking websites that are not in line with the policies of the land would be banned. Some of the most popular websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are already blocked in the mainland, with the government seeing them as a threat to national security.
Facebook even campaigned against the ban in 2014 to convince the Chinese government to approve its main app in the region. Mark Zuckerberg even addressed a conference in Chinese and later dined with XI Jinping. However, Facebook gained little from the efforts, and now even the last of its major products is being disrupted by the government.