China bans Facebook messaging service WhatsApp

The Chinese government has disabled Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp, the New York Times reports.

Nadim Kobeissi, an applied cryptographer at Paris-based research firm Symbolic Software, told the Times his company began noticing slowdowns in the service Wednesday. By Monday, the block had become comprehensive.

Authorities blocked video-chat and file-sharing functions within WhatsApp in mid-July, but the app’s messaging capabilities, which employ a rare and strong form of encryption, remained functional. The government lifted bans on video chat and file sharing later, but has since disabled the app in its entirety, reports say.

WhatsApp’s messaging service uses a renowned end-to-end encryption technique. As the Times explains it, even Facebook itself cannot decode messages sent via the app. The encryption method is not widely used and is therefore difficult to compromise.

But the ban, as the Times points out, indicates that Chinese authorities have developed a means by which to breach WhatsApp messaging encryption.

“This is not the typical technical method in which the Chinese government censors something,” Kobeissi said.

Censorship of various technological communication services is commonplace in the country. If the government does not disable a service entirely, it slows down that service to such a degree that it becomes unusable.

“If you’re only allowed to drive one mile per hour, you’re not going to drive on that road, even if it’s not technically blocked,” Lokman Tsui, an internet communications specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained to the Times.

The goal of the censorship is to funnel users toward a handful of communication services that the government can easily monitor. WeChat is one such service. It is similar to WhatsApp except that the former, according to the Times, offers broader functionality.

Tencent, the company that runs WeChat, is based in Shenzhen and has said that it will comply with the government’s requests for information. In total, 963 million people use WeChat, the Times says.

Services like WhatsApp and WeChat have largely replaced e-mail in China, and are vital to many business operations. A large number of China-based businesses were unwilling to use WeChat, whether because of the threat of surveillance or some other reason.

Some former WhatsApp users in China expressed frustration on social media, the Times reports.

“Losing contact with my clients, forced back to the age of telephone and email for work now,” one user complained on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site.

“Even WhatsApp is blocked now? I’m going to be out of business soon,” another person said via the same site.

WhatsApp was the last Facebook product available in mainland China, the Times says. The country banned the company’s main social media site in 2009. Instagram, another Facebook offering, is disabled as well.

The WhatsApp ban represents a setback for the social media behemoth, whose founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has been advocating and taking steps toward re-entering the Chinese market.

The handful of American-created communication services China does tolerate include Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s FaceTime. The former does not employ end-to-end encryption, the Times points out, and is, therefore, easier for the government to monitor. The latter does use end-to-end encryption but is less secure than WhatsApp.

The Times notes that the Office of the United States Trade Representative is investigating whether Chinese authorities have violated the intellectual property rights of American citizens. The Office has not clarified whether it will consider the bans as part of the investigation, or merely look for cases in which China has stolen US technology.

The WhatsApp ban comes just prior to the country’s Communist Party Congress on October 18, during which authorities appoint the leaders of the party, who in turn run the country.

According to the Times, the meeting, which the country holds once every five years, will likely reinstall President Xi Jinping as party leader. The question remains as to who will join Xi on the Standing Committee of Politburo, the party’s highest ranking group.

Under Xi’s leadership, the Times notes, China has tightened censorship, closed several churches and jailed a number of human rights activists.

Featured image via Pixabay

Jack Ma Takes Alibaba to the Top: IPO Prices at Top of Range, Raising $21.8 billion

Alibaba Group, headed by Jack Ma, has asked for a $22B I.P.O. It’s the biggest one ever in the United States, and on the surface, it seems like a great move. Alibaba Group is not only the premiere e-commerce company in China; it’s the world’s largest Internet e-commerce company that boasts 231 million active buyers. It racks up $291B in annual merchandise sales stretched across 11.3 billion orders. Amazon and Ebay pull $82B and $17B in annual revenue, respectively.

When a lofty IPO like this is presented, it’s often the personality and character behind the company that gets the deal done. A Chinese native, Ma had a strong desire to learn English and endured a 45-minute bike ride to a local hotel to chat with foreigners to put up the language. He served as a tour guide for free for the opportunity to perfect his English. Years later, Ma graduated from Teacher’s Institute (later renamed Hangzhouh Normal University) in 1998 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English.

With assistance from friends in the U.S., Ma began building websites for Chinese companies. Ma founded China Yellowpages, which many people agree was China’s first Internet-based company. He followed Alibaba in 1999, a business-to-business marketplace website which serves in excess of 79 million members across 240 countries.

Ma has amassed a long list of prestigious awards, including being named one of the top ten business leaders of the year (2004) by China Central Television, and one of the “25 Most Powerful Business People in Asia(2005).” Additionally, Ma made Time Magazine’s list of the top 100 most influential people in 2009.

Investors in Alibaba are enthralled with the growth potential in China, let alone global possibilities. China has 302 million internet shoppers, but that number is less than half of the 618 million Internet users there. Moreover, competition from retail stores is nowhere near as intense as it is the United States.According to Vincent Rivers, manager at J.O. Hambro Capital Investment,

“The potential is absolutely massive. The real question isn’t whether they’ll have more users. It’s how much will they spend.” Chinese Internet shoppers spend far less per person than in the United States. “If you look long term and they can close that gap, you can get to some huge numbers.”

Alibaba holds a profit margin of 40%, which is relatively high even factoring in Internet standards. Ebay has a margin of 20% and Google pulls 23%.

The question on many people’s minds is if Alibaba’s dominance of Chinese commerce will last, and if brick-and-mortar companies will win their piece of the market over time. Investors are buying the belief that Internet commerce will be the most dominant driving force in consumer spending, and from the looks of things, Jack Ma and the Alibaba Group will make their already successful business a financial titan worldwide.

In 2013, Ma announced to his employees that he was retiring as CEO from Alibaba Group. According to Ma, he wanted to put more focus on social crises, including water and air safety in China. Ma anticipates that these issues will result in long-term sicknesses throughout China if active measures aren’t taken against it. He still retains enormous power as co-founder of Alibaba and has secured several deals before the I.P.O. Alibaba announced a deal for a controlling stake in ChinaVision Media, the company that owns rights for mobile broadcasts of English Premier League soccer games. Additionally, Alibaba has launched Laiwang, its own messaging service, to compete with Tencent’s prevalent WeChat.



WeChat Helps Hospital Patients


WeChat, China’s top mobile messaging application is being used to make hospitals more efficient and help improve patients’ overall visiting experience. Improving hospital services is a priority because China’s top hospitals see an average of 10,000 patients on a daily basis.

Outside pressure has had an adverse effect the behavior of doctors, which thereby worsens patients’ experience; some doctors over-prescribe medicine to make more money, some expect bribes to ensure proper treatment and expedite waiting time.

Chinese doctors, on average, make between $500 -$1500 per month, a paltry figure by anyone’s standards considering all the diligent studying and testing they go through. Doctors are known to accept bribes to boost their income.
A WeChat trial is being conducted at YueBei Peoples Hospital in Guangdong that enables patients to view doctors’ information, make various appointments and keep track of where they are in the waiting list. For some senior citizens and other groups who can’t use WeChat, the app also allows others to use the app for them. The hospital offers classes to educate patients on the benefits of using WeChat. Likewise, after payment on the app, patients can submit a satisfaction and feedback survey for future studies.

Developed by China-based Tencent and released in 2011, WeChat is estimated to have over 300 million users, largely due to its functionality and myriad of uses. Among other uses, the application can tap into a machine translation service, exchange contacts with people close by via Bluetooth, and broadcast a message from one source to many listeners.




Photo: WeChat