China's Censorship Hits Internet Users In Other Countries

from the worst-of-all-worlds dept

It’s hardly a surprise these days that Chinese Internet companies routinely self-censor what appears on their services: the world knows there’s not much it can do about what happens within China’s borders. But here’s a disturbing story about how that censorship has started spreading further afield.

It concerns the WeChat app from the Chinese company Tencent, which has started to gain users in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. But as Tech In Asia now reports:

the Chinese name of the outspoken magazine caught up in a tense struggle of wills with the government — Southern Weekend in English, nan fang zhou mo in Chinese — is censored in Chinese on WeChat. But it’s not just restricted to users in China (where the app is called Weixin), and typing that name in the Chinese language is now blocked globally.

Sending a message with “Southern Weekend” in Chinese produced the warning that it contained “restricted words”:

We’ve tested it out going from users in China to Thailand (blocked), Thailand to China (blocked), and even Thailand to Singapore (blocked); the prohibited words are not sent at all. The name of the magazine can be sent in English.

Interestingly, just a day later the warning was gone, and Tencent claimed it was simply a “technical glitch”:

A small number of WeChat international users were not able to send certain messages due to a technical glitch this Thursday. Immediate actions have been taken to rectify it.

But as Tech In Asia points out:

It’s as clear as day in many screenshots. “The message [Southern Weekend] you sent contains restricted words. Please check it again.”

Yes: Restricted words. That’s no error message. It’s very far from being: Ooops, our servers are a bit busy right now, please try again a few minutes later.

As the article notes, maybe the “technical glitch” referred to was accidentally turning on the censorship for the service outside China.

In any case, this is a clear straw in the wind. China’s Internet companies are now so big and successful in their home market that it is only natural for them to look to expand overseas. I’m sure that at first they will be very reluctant to censor material there to avoid drawing the ire of digital rights groups and local governments; but at some point something will crop up that is sufficiently problematic for them as Chinese companies that they will feel compelled to act in order to safeguard their relations with the government in China, which will remain their priority.

Of course, the West can hardly claim the moral high ground here, since it, too, is censoring material. It’s just that different governments take exception to different things, and react with differing degrees of severity against those who flout their laws. Unfortunately, the end-result of Chinese Net companies expanding overseas is likely to be double censorship – one imposed by local authorities, and the other flowing from China.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

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Comments on “China's Censorship Hits Internet Users In Other Countries”

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Pete Austin says:

In some ways there's less censorship

I’m watching quite a lot of Vietnamese TV lately. (I know, different country, but it’s communist too and there are similar issues about avoiding the wrong political topics.) And I love it when some of the music from my youth – Beatles, Stones etc – just casually crops up in the background of even low-budget productions. This is an aspect of our culture that’s been censored away in Western media, but isn’t censored over there, and encountering it gives me a nice hit of nostalgia.

When I was last in Asia, I had to route around local censorship of Facebook and Western censorship of the Olympic opening ceremony. Strange what different societies prioritize.

Mr. Applegate says:

Like America doesn't censor?

It just looks different

“This domain name has been seized by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,…”

And yes it is censorship when it is done without due process. They do get it wrong.

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