China has a long history of censoring the internet. The Chinese government has blocked web content that is deemed unfavorable or undesirable as a means to control what types of information its residents can consume. Sites blocked in China include some of the biggest in the world, including Google and its popular apps, like Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Docs. Facebook and YouTube are also blocked in the Middle Kingdom.
Now, the world’s most popular messaging app is joining the ranks of websites blocked in China. WhatsApp is wholly owned by Facebook, and was one of the last Facebook apps still available in mainland China. Other Facebook owned products, including Instagram, are also unavailable to access. WhatsApp wasn’t blocked immediately. Instead, China’s censors began blocking WhatsApp features in pieces. This past summer, China’s censors started blocking video chats and photos in WhatsApp. Today, the restrictions have spread to disrupt the entire app, including text messages.
The censorship of WhatsApp comes ahead of the Communist Party’s Congress, a meeting of the ruling party of China where leadership decisions are made. It is possible that the government wanted to censor speech before new party leaders were chosen.
Chinese residents can still access WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, and other blocked services through the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs. VPNs allow internet users to access servers located in other countries, which allows Chinese residents to bypass the country’s restrictive censorship system. VPNs use end-to-end encryption which provides complete anonymity for users. The encryption means that internet service providers, third parties, and government actors cannot tell who is using the service or what is being said. VPN use has grown in countries like China and Saudi Arabia, where internet use is monitored.
It appears China is moving to attempt to crack down on VPN use. Apple has worked with the Chinese government to remove apps from the Chinese store which help users bypass censorship. The company even went as far as to release a statement, writing “We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations. These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”
China has worked to limit access to VPNs in the past, but the country’s continued censorship efforts mean that more residents will turn to the services as a way to access the web and bypass content restrictions.