WeChat Censorship Spreads Overseas

The popular Chinese app. WeChat is censoring certain key words from messages sent by its more than 846 million users even if they register with a foreign phone number, according to a study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen’s Lab.

WeChat is the fourth largest app of its kind on the planet offering additional features such as games, payment channels, bots and other perks which have even caught the eye of Facebook, which plans to mirror its messenger app. off WeChat – hopefully, without the censorship.

In China, all apps must be designed with the government’s strict censorship guidelines in place. WeChat is no different. However, it was previously believed that this type of censorship only applied to users registered with Chinese numbers. The Citizen’s Lab study found that it extended to users even if they were registered with a foreign phone number, potentially affecting the 50 million Chinese citizens thought to be working and studying abroad.

According study, more than 26,000 keywords banned on other sites like Weibo were blocked by the app. 174 words were muted from messages rather than being replaced with a label indicating it contains banned material. Muted words included “Free Tibet,” and “ISIS crisis.” The highest percentage of blocked keywords were related to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“This extra-territorial application of information controls is quite unique, and certainly a disturbing precedent to set,” writes Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab.

WeChat is run by tech giant Tencent. It has not returned messages from media outlets and its email address seems to be dormant.  

“By removing notice of censorship, WeChat sinks deeper into a dark hole of unaccountability to its users,” adds Deibert.