WhatsApp has become the latest in a long-line of big-name online services to find itself blocked in China.
Multiple sources in China are reporting that picture, video, and voice messages are no longer making it to their intended recipients. Text messages do currently still seem to be working according to industry experts, but some users have reported this function is unavailable too.
At the time of writing, the WhatsApp block is not consistent across the whole country and experts have drawn parallels with the situation when Gmail was first blocked in China back in 2014. It was not long after the initial service blackouts in part of China that the whole service was blocked.
According to Charlie Smith, a spokesperson from GreatFire.org a website which monitors the Chinese Great Firewall, WhatsApp’s servers are now “largely unavailable” across China. He told CNN that “I have also conducted speed tests from China and these sites are not reachable.”
The online crackdown continues
This is just the latest incident of expanded online censorship in China ahead of the Communist Party’s 19th Congress which takes place later this year. Party leader Xi Jinping is widely expected to use the event to consolidate his power in the country. Control of information is central to that, which is why censorship is on the rise.
There have been countless different examples of increased censorship and online surveillance in China in the past few months. The picture-sharing site Pintrest has been blocked, compulsory surveillance of public Wi-Fi networks has been introduced and an attempt to ban VPN’s has also been proposed.
In addition, online news portals now require state approval for all content they post, all news sites must be registered in China to operate, and the Chinese Communist Party continues to try and sell their absurd Cyber-Sovereignty theory to other world leaders.
In comparison to some other meansures, the blocking of WhatsApp is not going have such a large impact. The number of users of WhatsApp is small when compared to its Chinese equivalent, WeChat.
But WhatsApp offers a number of user protections that are lacking in WeChat. The Chinese service is not encrypted and happily cooperates with the Chinese regime on censorship and surveillance. The blocking of WhatsApp would mean the end of one of the last encrypted messaging services available in China.
As ‘Charlie Smith’, an anonymous Chinese internet censorship researcher said to the Guardian newspaper, “By blocking WhatsApp, the authorities have shut down one of the few remaining free and encrypted messaging apps but, more importantly, they have also limited the ability for Chinese to have private conversations with their peers.”
The partial blocking of WhatsApp is yet to become a total ban, but experts believe it is only a matter of time. For people visiting, working, or living in China, the only way to fully access WhatsApp right now is with a VPN.