A government crackdown in China has resulted elements of WhatsApp becoming unusable in what appears to be a partial blackout of the OTT messaging services.
WhatsApp users reported on various other social media sites – including Twitter – that they were unable to send images, although text messages were still functioning. China’s government is reportedly tightening restrictions on social media ahead of the 19th Communist Party Congress, in a bid to quell any potential political unrest around the event.
The crackdown follows on from claims by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab that the WeChat and Sina Weibo services – which are essentially the Chinese equivalents of WhatsApp and Twitter respectively – appeared to have imposed significantly stricter censorship on search terms related to the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, who recently died while in the custody of China’s government.
Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, said: “concerned that martyrdom around Liu may spur collective action, as well as being concerned about saving face, the knee-jerk reaction of China’s authorities is to quash all public discussion of Liu, which in today’s world translates into censorship on social media.”
WhatsApp is not as widely used in China as WeChat, which is operated by Tencent. However, WeChat is unencrypted and rigorously censored, with reports in December 2016 showing that certain keywords relating to controversial social and political issues within China were being censored in WeChat messages - even when users were travelling outside the country.
This has spurred users concerned about privacy to adopt WhatsApp, as it offers encryption. The use of virtual private networks to circumvent Chinese government censorship – colloquially referred to as The Great Firewall - has also increased, although the newfound popularity of such networks prompted another government crackdown on the tech.
China is not the only market where WhatsApp has faced a ban – it has been blocked several times in Brazil, largely for failing to reveal requested user data that would have been submitted to court in a legal case.