WeChat: Censoring Across Borders

Yesterday, TechInAsia reported that Chinese Internet giant Tencent’s massively popular messaging app WeChat has begun applying censorship policy to users residing outside of China:

Right now, the Chinese name of the outspoken magazine caught up in a tense struggle of willswith the government – Southern Weekend in English, 南方周末 (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. The restriction notice says (pictured):

The message “南方周末” you sent contains restricted words. Please check it again.

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.

TechInAsia contacted Tencent for a comment, and a newer post quotes the company writing off the restricted characters as a “technical glitch”. The post goes on to offer “incriminating evidence” that the restrictions were more deliberate:

Referring to the case as a “glitch”, the full statement given to us reads:

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. We apologize for any inconvenience it has caused to our users. We will continue to improve the product features and technological support to provide better user experience.

Indeed, testing out the offending phrase today, it does now work within WeChat.

[...]But what about that warning that many saw? It’s as clear as day in many screenshots. “The message “南方周末” 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.[...]

TechInAsia has previously reported on Tencent’s (largely successful) efforts to go global with their popular new product. A post from PandoDaily.com describes the new opportunities to globalize offered by the mobile market, and suggests that internationalizing the self-censorship required for a media company to sustain in China would impede Tencent’s quest for global presence:

In the past, Chinese social networks have only had to worry about censorship in regards to users inside the country – because, proportionately speaking, so few users of China’s Internet properties access the sites from overseas – but WeChat, which has the potential to be more international, presents a new challenge.

The advent of the mobile age has opened up the possibility for China to compete on a global stage and develop Internet products in parallel with the rest of the world. In particular, many entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses within China consider themselves to have an advantage over their Western counterparts when it comes to expanding into developing countries, such as India, Brazil, and those in Southeast Asia.

[...]Until now, WeChat has been allowed to spread beyond China without having to deal with a big censorship blowup. Now it’s being put to the ultimate test. For users in China, it’s business as usual. For everyone else, it’s time to reassess.

For more on Tencent and WeChat, see “WeChat, a Threat to All?” Also see CDT’s ongoing coverage of censorship, strike and lingering concern surrounding the notoriously candid Southern Weekly (also known as Southern Weekend) – the newspaper whose name was reportedly restricted for international WeChat users.