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Last week, a group of researchers in Toronto revealed that messaging app WeChat was blocking messages being sent or received by some users residing outside of mainland China. That WeChat excised some of its users’ content, ostensibly at the behest of Chinese government censors, was not much of a surprise. But those on the messaging platform may have been caught unawares by the company’s willingness to use censorship-by-proxy outside of China.
The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary group at the University of Toronto focusing on information, security and human rights, found that WeChat users who had initially registered their accounts in China with a mainland telephone number were subject to content control measures indefinitely, even if they relocated to a different country or changed their phone number to a foreign one. In contrast, users who had initially registered their accounts in the US or Hong Kong faced less stringent filtering practices.
The Citizen Lab also discovered that WeChat had stopped notifying users when their messages had been blocked, and that the list of keywords triggering filtering was dynamic and reactive to current news events. The list of keywords was longer for group chats than for peer-to-peer messaging, a practice likely designed to obstruct online organizing.
Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, told Reuters: “Tencent respects and complies to local laws and regulations in countries we operate in.”
It’s unlikely that foreign companies operating on the platform will face a backlash from users in China upset with either its content blocking practices or collusion with censors. WeChat has a massive user base, reported by the company at 846 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of Q3 2016, and is widely used in the country. Although the company doesn’t break out its user figures by market, it’s safe to assume the vast majority reside in mainland China, where censorship and surveillance is an expected cost of going online.
Although WeChat has limited penetration in markets with a significant Chinese-speaking population, such as Malaysia, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger dominate the messaging app sector in most countries among Android users, according to data from SimilarWeb. That means that users in Western markets are unlikely to use WeChat and probably indifferent to its content blocking practices.
International brands using WeChat face a more complicated situation. Even in the face of content blocking, WeChat’s promise of access to such a large group of consumers in China may be too hard for brands to resist. The platform is no longer just a messaging app, but a self-contained digital ecosystem complete with its own internal apps in which users can make digital purchases, transfer money, hire taxis, book travel plans, track fitness—the list goes on and on.
“All multinational brands in China are registering official WeChat accounts, recruiting a fan base and setting up mobile commerce shops,” said Nicholas Chew, head of marketing at fashion brand China Esprit.
For multinationals, dealing with the ramifications of content filtering and censorship in China is just another cost of doing business in the Middle Kingdom.
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