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Messaging app Signal is latest social media network to be blocked in China

Signal encrypted messaging app on a smartphone
The Signal encrypted-messaging app on a smartphone in Paris.
(Raphael Satter / Associated Press)

Encrypted-messaging app Signal appears to have been blocked in mainland China, the latest foreign social-media platform to cease working in the country, which has a government that tightly controls the flow of information.

As of Tuesday, users of the app within China had to connect to a virtual private network, or VPN, to get around China’s so-called Great Firewall, a censorship system that blocks websites, services and apps deemed inappropriate by the Chinese government.

The move to silence Signal, one of the few remaining messaging apps in China that allowed users to engage in encrypted messaging, comes as China expands controls to shape public opinion and, at times, limit private discourse.

Users in China said Tuesday that they could not get the app to connect without a VPN service. Messages failed to send and calls did not go through.

In China, social media and search engines such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have been blocked for years. Most recently, popular social-audio platform Clubhouse was also shut down in the country, shortly after Chinese users on the app started taking part in real-time audio discussions on topics deemed sensitive by authorities, such as China’s mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a daily news briefing Tuesday that he was “not aware of” whether Signal had been banned in China.

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The Chinese-controlled internet is already a world apart from that used by the rest of the globe, split by censorship that blocks users in China from accessing many of the apps and websites used daily in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“What I can tell you is that, as a principle, China’s internet is open, and the Chinese government manages internet-related affairs according to law and regulations,” Zhao said.

Signal could not be immediately reached for comment.

Signal uses end-to-end encryption for its messaging and calling services, which prevents any third party from viewing conversations or listening in on calls.

The app had recently become popular among users in China concerned about privacy issues, although the numbers of Signal users in the country is still small compared with the ubiquitous WeChat messaging app. WeChat has more than a billion users and is a mainstay of everyday life in China thanks to its payments services and social media features.

However, politically sensitive messages and content on WeChat are often censored, and authorities have detained users for spreading rumors online. Messages on WeChat are encrypted only between its servers and the users’ devices, and in theory could be accessed by Tencent, WeChat’s parent company.

To circumvent China’s censorship and to access sites like Twitter or Facebook, users in China often use VPNs, although the use of such services to access blocked sites is illegal in the country.


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