TAIPEI: The Signal messaging app became unusable for many people in mainland China this week, stifling one of the last widely used messaging apps that could send and receive encrypted messages in the country without a virtual private network.
The government’s apparent move to block Signal intensifies its grip on public and private speech in China, where many messaging and social media apps, including Facebook,
Twitter and, more recently, the popular Clubhouse social audio platform, have been banned.
Signal users in mainland China began reporting problems Monday night with sending and receiving messages on the app. Using a virtual private network, or VPN, a tool that allows Internet users to bypass China’s elaborate web filtering system, solved those problems, leading users to conclude that the app had been blocked in China. .
Some also reported problems with registration, another common censorship practice that plagued Clubhouse last month, where users are unable to register with their phone numbers because the verification text code is never received.
The problems began on Sunday and included log breaks and network crashes, a person familiar with the matter said. The China Cyberspace Administration, the country’s internet regulator, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry referred a question about the apparent ban to the relevant department, but said that the Internet in China is open and the government administers the Internet in accordance with the law.
Signal uses end-to-end encryption, which prevents third-party access to communications between sender and receiver. It includes features such as message and media disappearance, and has been touted as a tool for secure and private communication. Similar encrypted messaging apps, like Facebook Inc.’s Telegram and WhatsApp, are also inaccessible in China without a VPN.
The signal rose in popularity last year among Chinese users after the US administration said it would ban WeChat.,
China’s most popular messaging app, operated by Tencent Holdings Ltd. Downloads also spiked in Hong Kong after lawmakers passed national security legislation, cracking down on pro-democracy protests.
WeChat uses client-to-server encryption, giving Tencent full access to data between senders and recipients. The app is ubiquitous in China and largely a necessity for everyday life through its messaging and payment services. He is also known for his censorship of sensitive matters, such as political criticism or during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
In February, Chinese censors blocked Clubhouse after the app began to gain traction in the country and sparked discussions on sensitive topics generally restricted in China, such as the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China or the Tiananmen Square protests.
“It has always been a surprise that Signal has lasted so long, given that the purpose of the application is to facilitate encrypted communications.”
As with Clubhouse, some saw the loss of Signal as inevitable due to China’s expansive censorship apparatus and tightening of controls over its Internet users.
“It has always been a surprise that Signal has lasted so long, given that the purpose of the application is to facilitate encrypted communications,” said James Griffiths, author of “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet. “
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, said Signal was the latest encrypted messaging app that she could easily use to connect securely with friends and activists in mainland China.
Although Signal can still work with a VPN, it has become more difficult to access them in China in recent years after China tightened the rules on the tool. At least hundreds of VPNs have been removed from app stores, while VPN users and providers have faced fines.
“All of these are indications that it will be increasingly difficult for people to talk to people safely on sensitive issues,” Wang said. “I am really concerned about communication for people within China.”
While there was no clear catalyst for the apparent ban, some experts speculated that Signal’s recent popularity among mainland users may have contributed.
According to research firm Sensor Tower, Signal downloads on iOS, Apple’s operating system, had been gaining momentum in China over the past year before falling in February and March. Signal installs hit a monthly high in August of 52,000 after the WeChat ban was announced in the US and rose again in January, with approximately 49,000 installs.
Still, Signal users in China are a fraction of those on WhatsApp or Telegram, according to Sensor Tower data. Signal downloads on iOS have totaled 510,000 in China, compared with 9.6 million WhatsApp installs and three million Telegram installs.
The signal was also blocked in Iran in January. The company has said it released a fix for that network lockdown and was exploring more ways to circumvent the ban.
Write to Stephanie Yang at [email protected]
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