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China censors chat users outside China

report says messages discussing press freedom campaign blocked

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China’s largest internet firm, Tencent, is reportedly now censoring messages sent by international users of its popular WeChat service.

The Shenzhen-based web giant, which accrued $US1.8bn in revenues in the last quarter, is one of the few Chinese online companies trying to expand its footprint overseas.

Although its QQ instant messaging service has around 800 million domestic users and its web portal of the same name is one of China’s most popular, the Whatsapp-like platform WeChat (or Weixin) is its most prominent product beyond the Middle Kingdom.

It has now emerged that messages sent between users outside China will be blocked when they contain certain words.

TechInAsia sent test messages containing the Chinese characters for Southern Weekly – the newspaper at the heart of recent protests over press freedom – and found them blocked when sent between users in Thailand and Singapore.

The error message – in English – apparently reads: “The message ‘南方周末’ you sent contains restricted words. Please check it again.”

Tencent last month launched a BlackBerry version of the app, in an effort to tap users in south-east Asian countries where the RIM device is still popular, so it’s obviously keen to expand its reach abroad.

Although English language messages are not blocked on WeChat – yet – international users may still be troubled by the news and many are likely to decide against putting their faith in a service where messages are routed through Chinese servers.

WeChat has been singled out in the past on similar matters. A South China Morning Post piece from last November detailed allegations from human rights activist Hu Jia that the police were snooping in real-time on his messages – although it hasn’t been proven that this was done with Tencent’s knowledge.

Tencent didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment. ®

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