Copyright 2017. American In Macau. All Rights Reserved. 

By Ashley Sutherland-Winch

Published December 8, 2016 in Macau Business Daily

While messaging apps like WeChat, What’s App and Telegram offer a free service to millions of customers around the world, the hidden fee may be censorship and geo-location. This week, a study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab cited that WeChat accounts registered with a Mainland China-based phone number are censored regardless of where in the world the owner may travel.

Regardless of location, keywords are filtered out of messages as long they keep the same user name. Accounts created abroad, such as through carriers in the United States, Europe or Hong Kong, do not face the same restrictions, the report said. With over 846 million active users on WeChat, Tencent Holdings Ltd., the company responsible for WeChat, has stated that they comply with local regulations in the countries where the app operates.

The research study tested 26,821 keywords blocked previously on other websites, including Weibo Corp. and YY Inc. The researchers found 174 words and expressions like ‘Free Tibet’, the banned spiritual movement ‘Falun Gong’ and ‘ISIS Crisis’ triggered censorship. If these words are detected by WeChat servers in China, the message will not be sent. The report also went on to say that ‘keyword censorship is no longer transparent; in the past, users received notifications when their message was blocked [but] now censorship or chat messages happen without any user notice.’

In recent months, a notable crackdown on other secure messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have been observed. WhatsApp, with proclaimed end-to-end encryption, was blocked or restricted in 12 countries in 2016 including in Bahrain, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia demonstrating that China is not the only country with stringent censorship policies. A recent report by the pro-Democracy think tank, Freedom House stated that ‘two-thirds of the world’s Internet users live under regimes of government censorship’ – as well as China, the group cited Syria and Iran.

Along with censorship, some groups believe that messaging apps also reveal locations. Islamic state newspaper Al-Naba wrote: ‘As long as it has power, the phone is spying on you’. According to Reuters, ISIS has told members to stop using messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram for fear of being tracked by the United States.

At the end of the day, is it realistic to expect complete privacy with any ‘free’ app that offers worldwide communication? I am not so sure that freedom of expression is a global gift – but with Christmas just around the corner, it’s anyone’s guess.