Yesterday we broke the story of how WeChat, the world’s biggest Whatsapp-style messaging app, was apparently censoring words that are deemed “sensitive” on the Chinese web right now. In what looked like a case of keyword filtering of certain Chinese text (which could be replicated by many, but not all, users around the world), WeChat was not permitting some phrases to be sent via the app. After contacting Tencent (HKG:0700) last night, now the makers of the hugely popular app have responded.
Referring to the case as a “glitch”, the full statement given to us reads:
A small number of WeChat international users were not able to send certain messages due to a technical glitch this Thursday. Immediate actions have been taken to rectify it. We apologize for any inconvenience it has caused to our users. We will continue to improve the product features and technological support to provide better user experience.
Indeed, testing out the offending phrase today, it does now work within WeChat.
But there’s clear evidence (see the screenshot collage above) of very specific “sensitive” phrases being blocked by the app – particularly the Chinese name of the outspoken magazine Southern Weekend, which has been embroiled in a battle with authorities over a fiery editorial in its New Year’s edition – it’s hard to see how it was a technical error.
But what about that warning that many saw? It’s as clear as day in many screenshots. “The message “南方周末” you sent contains restricted words. Please check it again.”
Yes: Restricted words. That’s no error message. It’s very far from being: Ooops, our servers are a bit busy right now, please try again a few minutes later.
If so, why was WeChat (known as Weixin in Chinese) not blocking the word “coffee” in Chinese, or “boobies”, but it was very specifically prohibiting, in many instances, the name of that magazine. And a controversial cult group. And perhaps more Chinese-language politically taboo words. Unless the hidden meaning of the “technical” issue in the Tencent statement is that keyword filtering was turned on by mistake.
In the long run, so long as the app safeguards free speech for all other languages, the damage from this incident might be contained. Censorship is a fact of life in China and on the web in the country, usually instigated by the media and web companies themselves so that they avoid getting in trouble with authorities. That’s how it works.
But this kerfuffle has shown that, if a web company wants to expand overseas – like Tencent with WeChat, or Sina Weibo and its new English version this week – then the legal and cultural practices of the Chinese web have to be shaken off. Oh, and iron out the “glitches” too.