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China has never showed signs of slowing down on Internet censorship. The latest from the creators of the Great Firewall is harsher restrictions on instant messaging. Services that want to continue operating in the country will have to help the Chinese government restrict access to messaging services for users who refuse to comply with the new guidelines. The only hope for online messaging freedom in China now is the continued use of messaging VPNs.
New Restrictions for Instant Messaging in China
All users of mobile instant messaging services in China are facing new attacks on their online freedoms. They are being ordered to register with their real names and agree to seven new rules. Government owned news organization Xinhua notified the public of these new requirements. Among these rules are the conditions that users must uphold the “socialist system, social morality and authenticity of information”. China calls this attack on the Internet the promotion of true freedom of speech. This is an obvious attempt to counter freedom protests aimed against state censorship policies.
China has long been in the lead for governments that impose the strictest Internet regulations. They recently came down on Chinese microbloggers to stifle comments that were critical of the government. Now they are going after users of platforms like KakaoTalk and WeChat. These users are no longer allowed to use nicknames on the apps so that the government can easily track their activities. They are also banned from sharing news items unless they hold government issued licenses. This will limit people from reposting any content that the government considers undesirable.
Messaging apps themselves are also restricted by these new rules. They can continue to serve the Chinese people only if they agree to certain terms. For instance, they have to block users who do not comply from getting app updates. Any users who violate the new rules will have their accounts closed. The service providers are ordered to keep and send records of user activities to Chinese officials. These records will be used to single out and punish violators.
The State Internet Information Office in China maintains that they are acting in the interest of all Chinese Internet users. Mobile internet management division head Xu Feng said that messaging apps are being used by people to harm public security. Users who do not comply are infringing on other people’s rights to enjoy handy instant messaging services. He says that this is the true freedom of speech, and that violators are misusing the term to promote discord.
Messaging VPNs Ensure Access in China
Many mobile messaging apps and other social media platforms have been banned in China in the past month. These include DiDi, Instagram, KakaoTalk, Line, Vower and Talkbox. People in China cannot download these apps without first connecting to a messaging VPN. These blocks are in addition to the services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which are already unavailable in the country without the use of messaging VPNs.
One widely popular messaging app, WeChat, has lately come under closer scrutiny by the Chinese government. WeChat, in China Weixin, was used to share news about the recent China blocks on microbloging platforms. WeChat is popular because users can share images and video as well as send voice messages and chat in groups. WeChat was instrumental in the spread of rumors that the Chinese government was going to jail users who promote certain online content. State newspaper China Daily reported that the new rules on mobile messaging would deter this. Monitoring and catching content sharing violators in real time will be more effective. The report treats the sharing behavior as the promotion of violence and terrorism, and the malicious spreading of illegal information. Chinese mobile users can still download and share via WeChat by connecting to a messaging VPN.
The new regulations on mobile messaging are certainly tougher than previous ones. But they do not come as a surprise according to law and media professionals. Some independently run public affairs news groups may close down as a result of the crackdown. But the public is taking it with a grain of salt. Many are angered by the clampdown, but most are focusing more on moving on. They will find ways around the new restrictions, most likely starting with regular use of privacy tools like messaging VPNs.