Ahead of the 19th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party, China apparently decided to block Facebook’s popular messaging service WhatsApp nationwide. The move was done in secrecy but was reported by the Open Observatory of Network Interference, which noticed that Chinese ISPs started blocking access to the application on Sept. 23.
However, some users reported not being able to access the service as early as September 19. What’s more, the encrypted messenger app has been affected by disruptions multiple times in recent months. Facebook declined to confirm the findings.
Experts believe that the move was politically motivated as China has a habit of censoring online communications ahead of a major gathering of the Communist Party.
The party’s 19th National Congress is scheduled for next month and takes place every five years. During the top-level meetings, Chinese leaders will discuss policy priorities and revamp leadership.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program confirmed that ahead of major party gatherings, Chinese authorities are blocking, censoring and setting up restrictions on the Internet, and this is what happened over the last couple of months.
WhatsApp Ban May Be Permanent
China employs an army of censors and online filters called the Great Firewall to ensure that the information circulating the internet is not harmful to the ruling party. But blocking WhatsApp may be part of a larger plan to beef up internet restrictions. So, after the Congress, the app could remain blocked.
WhatsApp users accessing the app on international data plans said they didn’t notice any disruption. In other words, only users accessing the app from China were targeted.
Ironically, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been trying for years to lift the ban on Facebook in China. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Gmail, and Snapchat have been all banned across the country. Some Chinese users use virtual private networks to bypass online censorship and access the services, but the government started a major crackdown on VPNs earlier this year.
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