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China Disrupts WhatsApp Service in Online Clampdown

The news environment has heightened the sensitivity. In recent weeks, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo passed away in detention. A Chinese billionaire in the United States accused senior leaders of graft, from his platform on Twitter. And Hong Kong commemorated the 20th anniversary of its handover to China.

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Facebook and Instagram are already blocked in China. Now, WhatsApp has been hit. Credit Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

To make matters more fraught, the 19th Party Congress — where top leadership positions are determined — is just months away. In the run up to the event, which happens every five years, the government puts an increased emphasis on stability, often leading to a tightening of internet controls.

WhatsApp, which had generally avoided major disruptions in China despite the full block of Facebook and Instagram, appears to have become a victim of those circumstances.

The blocks against WhatsApp originated with the government, according to a person familiar with the situation who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the disruption. Security experts also verified that the partial disruption in WhatsApp started with China’s internet filters.

“According to the analysis that we ran today on WhatsApp’s infrastructure, it seems that the Great Firewall is imposing censorship that selectively targets WhatsApp functionalities,” said Nadim Kobeissi, an applied cryptographer at Symbolic Software, a cryptography research start-up.

Mr. Kobeissi said it was not clear whether the targeted censorship of videos and photos was intentional, or if it was just a prelude to a more complete block of WhatsApp in the coming days.

WhatsApp is hugely popular around much of the globe but the platform is not widely used in China, where local messaging app WeChat dominates. Even so, it is used by many Chinese to communicate or do business outside the country or in Hong Kong.

In the past, partial blocks have sometimes led to full bans, or have eventually been removed by the government, and service restored. Still, Beijing’s track record with other American social networking services does not bode well for WhatsApp. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google and Gmail are all blocked in the country.

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Source: New York Times

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