The popular online messaging app, WhatsApp, is reportedly down in China.
According to media reports, this could be related to the upcoming National Congress to be conducted by the ruling party.
Internet censorship in China is widespread and imposed by the government. The nation has in place more than sixty rules and regulations that monitor flow of information through the internet. Political censorship in the communist regime is built into layers of China’s online infrastructure.
The Ministry of Information Industry (MII) oversees internet censorship. According to Human Rights Watch, the first layer of online censorship in China happens through routers. The government has long used online tools to suppress dissident opinions. As of 2013, the state media noted that more than two million people in China are employed by the government to monitor web activity.
In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization and with that it agreed to open online data services to international competition. However, it also got the permission from other members states to retain restrictions on the media. Top technology companies have been wary of publicly criticizing China for not upholding its end of the agreement with the WTO.
In the previous years, China has blocked access to online platforms and tools temporarily. This was done largely prior to top political events.
Every five years, China organizes the National Congress of the ruling Communist Party. During this gathering, some of the largest political figures in the country come together to discuss the future of the party. They determine policy priorities and also select leaders who will lead the party in the future. The 19th National Congress is set to take place on October 18th, 2017.
According to media reports, the Facebook-owned online messaging service WhatsApp has been down for at least a week for the large portion of the population. The New York Times has noted that some in China could not access WhatsApp even earlier.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations said that this censorship is related to the upcoming political event. He said, "Typically, in the run up to Party Congresses, we've seen blocking, filtering, restrictions on the internet, and that's what we've been seeing in the last couple months.”
WhatsApp users who have been using international SIM cards have not experienced any problems with their access. It is one of the most popular online messaging services. According to some estimates, the app has more than a billion daily active users.
The Chinese government has not publicly commented on the reports. Facebook has also not responded.
Our assessment is that China is trying to regulate the flow of information ahead of the sensitive political meeting. WhatsApp is well known among cryptographers for ensuring secure communication for its users and for providing end-to-end encryption. It is trying to push for services like WeChat that are less secure. It also tolerates Microsoft’s Skype as it does not provide end-to-end encryption. This block will likely be temporary in nature. However, it also sets a precedent for the future.