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

Beijing Blocks WhatsApp Access in Mainland China

Chinese users have reported trouble regarding the use of WhatsApp instant messaging tool on Tuesday. Many suspect that Beijing is responsible for the issues that are arising as part of its latest regulations on internet use.

The issues included involved being unable to send or receive photos using the chat app, which is owned by Facebook, without the use of a VPN. Beijing has had previous issues regarding VPNs, and they have made multiple attempts to encourage telecoms to prevent individual access to VPNs. VPNs are used to bypass Beijing’s censorship program by rerouting internet traffic elsewhere, usually to a foreign IP address.

Beijing efforts to tighten internet security is motivated by their intentions to block any websites with information that could be critical of the Communist Party including YouTube, Twitter, and foreign news sites. While the information itself is not necessarily censored, access to the information is blocked preventing the information from being seen in mainland China. In response, many proxy websites that fulfill a similar function rise in order to provide the original site’s services without broadcasting any potential criticism.

The suspicions that Beijing is involved come at the results of a test conducted by the South China Morning Post on Tuesday afternoon. Two users registered with mainland Chinese mobile numbers were unable to send neither videos nor pictures to each other via WhatsApp. One of the users then tried to send both a video and a picture to an overseas number, which resulted in a failed transmission. The overseas user then sent a video and a picture to the mainland Chinese mobile user, and while the message did go through, all the Chinese user could see was a loading thumbnail that failed to fully load and display its message.

However, there were no problems when sending text messages to one another, which included media content as well, and all functions and services provided by WhatsApp were restored upon the use of a VPN. This suggests that there was some involvement that restricted messaging, and that these restrictions applied only to WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is one of the few messaging services available in mainland China that is foreign based. While not as popular as the local app WeChat, which acts as a more readily accessible and offers less noticeably regulated services, WhatsApp still fulfills a competitive niche thanks to its end-to-end encryption.

WeChat, which is owned by the dominant tech company Tencent, has been found to be censoring messages deemed sensitive by Beijing without notifying its users. While this does occur, the app is still popular because it does not require a VPN to function properly.

Users began noticing troubles with WhatsApp early in the morning on Tuesday, but found that other apps on their mobile devices, including WeChat, were functioning without issues. A member of a non-governmental labor welfare group in Shenzen mentioned regular use of WhatsApp for work based communication due to the security and privacy it provides. Instead of switching over to WeChat to communicate with his colleagues, the man refrained from contacting his colleagues at all, as WeChat and text messaging were not viably safe options.

Neither WhatsApp nor Facebook have made any statements regarding Chinese censorship. However, Facebook’s social networking site and its photo-sharing services provided by Instagram are both blocked in China and have been for a long while now. Other foreign based chat and media sharing apps that have been blocked in mainland China include Tokyo-based Line and Berlin-based Telegram.

If businesses wishing to penetrate Chinese markets want to be successful, then they need to take major considerations regarding the government’s regulations on especially foreign based companies. If they fail to do so, then any invest into the Chinese market will come up short as the services provided are at a larger than usual risk of being shut down or restricted.

Featured Image via Pixabay

Facebook’s WhatsApp Deal Faces Review by EU

Facebook is one of the giant corporations right now that has been snatching up other tech and social media companies like it’s going out of style. Though their acquisition of WhatsApp is no longer breaking news, the social networking giant is waiting on European Union courts to review whether or not it has violated antitrust laws. Facebook has actually taken the initiative to ask the court to review the $19 billion deal as a means to save the time of having each individual country review the matter.

The commission that Facebook has approached will most likely take a more neutral stance, while going country by country is feared to stir up local and national telecom companies who see the WhatsApp purchase as a threat to their profits. These companies would argue that WhatsApp would give Facebook a dominant presence in the market for text and picture messaging.

The EU was not expecting to have to deal with this case, as the purchase of WhatsApp was not seen to dramatically increase Facebook’s revenue. Facebook however took advantage of a provision in the legislation  in order to avoid potential complications in the future. National Authorities will have 15 days to voice opposition to the EU takeover, and if they don’t than a EU commission will review the request.

Facebook is already facing tax investigations in France, so this move may also be their attempt at showing a good face. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has already approved the purchase, but warned Facebook that they must disclose to users notice and obtain consent before sharing information if it extends beyond its current privacy agreement. Many European telecom executives believe that Facebook is competing with an unfair advantage, and that the deal threatens their businesses. They believe that legislation needs to change. They better act quickly though, they only have 15 days to object.