WeChat: “One App, Two Systems”

Days are long gone when we used to interact with the Internet as an undifferentiated network. The reality today is that what we communicate online is mediated by companies that own and operate the Internet services we use.  Social media in particular have become, for an increasing number of people, their windows on reality.  Whether, and in what ways, those windows might be distorted — by corporate practices or government directives — is thus a matter of significant public importance (but not always easy to discern with the naked eye).

Take the case of WeChat — the most popular chat application in China, and the fourth largest in the world with 806 million monthly active users.  WeChat is more than just an instant messaging application. It is more like a lifestyle platform.  WeChat subscribers use the app not only to send text, voice, and video but to play games, make mobile payments, hail taxis, and more.

As with all other Internet services operating in China, however, WeChat must comply with extensive government regulations that require companies to police their networks and users, and share user data with security agencies upon request.  Over numerous recent case-study reports, Citizen Lab research has found that many China-based applications follow these regulations by building into their applications hidden keyword censorship and surveillance.  WeChat is no exception, although with a twist.

Today, we are releasing a new report, entitled “One App, Two Systems: How WeChat uses one censorship policy in China and another internationally.  For this report, we undertook several controlled experiments using combinations of China, Canada, and U.S. registered phone numbers and accounts to test for Internet censorship on WeChat’s platform.  What we found was quite surprising.

Turns out that there is substantial censorship on WeChat, but split along several dimensions.  There is keyword filtering for users registered with a mainland China phone number but not for those registering with an international number.  However, we also found that once a China-based user had registered with a mainland China phone number, the censorship follows them around — even if they switch to an international phone number, or work, travel, or study abroad.  To give some context, there are roughly 50 million overseas Chinese people working and living abroad.  China’s “One-App, Two Systems” keeps them under the control of China’s censorship regime no matter where they go. This extra-territorial application of information controls is quite unique, and certainly a disturbing precedent to set.

We also found censorship worked differently on the one-on-one versus the “group” chat systems.  The latter is a WeChat feature that allows chat groups of up to 500 users.  Our tests found censorship on the group chat system was more extensive, possibly motivated by the desire to restrict speech that might mobilize large groups of people into some kind of activism.  There is also censorship of WeChat’s web browser — but, again, mostly for China-registered users.

Finally, and most troubling, we found that WeChat no longer gives a notice to users about the blocking of chat messages.  In the past, users received a warning saying they couldn’t post a message because it “contains restricted words.” Now if you send a banned keyword, it simply doesn’t appear on the recipient’s screen. It’s like it never happened at all.  This type of “silent” censorship is highly unlikely to be noticed by either communicating party unless one of them thinks to double check (or researchers like us scrutinize it closely).

By removing notice of censorship, WeChat sinks deeper into a dark hole of unaccountability to its users.

Research of this sort is essential because it helps pull back the curtain of obscurity that, unfortunately, pervades so much of our digital experiences.  As social media companies increasingly shape and control what users communicate — shape our realities — they affect our ability to exercise our rights to seek and impart information — to exercise our human rights.

China may offer the most extreme examples, as our series of reports on China-based applications has shown, but they are important to study as harbingers of a possible future.  To wit, as our report is going to publication Facebook is reportedly developing a special censorship system to comply with China’s regulations, one that would “suppress posts from appearing in users’ news feeds.”  Along with WeChat’s “One App, Two Systems” model, the services these two social media giants are offering go a long way to cementing a bifurcated, territorialized, and opaque Internet.

Read the full report here: https://citizenlab.org/2016/11/wechat-china-censorship-one-app-two-systems