China Ratchets Up Mobile Chat App Censorship

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According to an August 7th article in the Financial Times, the Chinese government tightened censorship on mobile messaging apps on Thursday with new rules aimed at limiting dissent, while it simultaneously blocking a number of foreign chat services. Chinese authorities have kept a close eye on social media of all kinds since Tiananmen Square, but this new round of chat app censorship is perhaps the government’s most sweeping effort to date to squelch online dissent.

 Mobile chat app censorship: Details on the new rules

The new rules were announced by China’s State Council Information Office. This new chat app censorship effort bans bloggers from publishing political news without receiving prior government permission, and messaging service providers must clearly identify any accounts qualified to post political news.

Furthermore, new users will also have to verify their identity with service providers as well as sign an agreement to always post within the “seven bottom lines” defined by the Communist party: “the law, the socialist system, the nation’s interests, citizens’ rights, public order, social morals and authenticity of information”.

Statements from analysts on new chat app censorship

Zhang Lifan, a well-known historian and blogger based in Beijing, took the risk of openly expressing his opinions about the new rules. He said the lack of specifics in the rules in effect give  the authorities broad power to interpret the regulations any way they want to.

“I think this provision is more to threaten and give warnings than to actually provide supervision and control,” he explained. “What we should look out for is who will be the first to be punished using these provisions, then it will be clear who was the intended target.”

Blocking foreign messaging services

The new rules seemed to be focused on domestic chat services, but it turned out that several foreign chat apps had been blocked in China since July 1 because of “concerns that the chat apps were being used to foment terrorism.”

The South Korean science ministry released a statement Thursday saying said Chinese officials had confirmed they were blocking some messaging services. This was the first official explanation for the outage of several chat services since early July.

Korean-owned instant messaging app Line, Korean chat app Kakaotalk, push-to-talk apps Talkbox and Vower, and texting app Didi have all been or are still blocked.

“Beijing told Seoul that it had blocked some foreign messaging services through which terrorism-related information was circulating,” the science ministry said in a statement.

Korean messaging app Line had been linked to pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong at the start of July, and it had been surmised that was the reason for the blockage.

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