China tightens grip on instant messaging services

A picture illustration shows icons of WeChat and Weibo app in Beijing
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A picture illustration shows icons of WeChat and Weibo app in Beijing, December 5, 2013. An unprecedented Nov. 14 leak of China's Communist Party reform plans fuelled China's biggest stock market rally in two months as it spread on microblogs and passed from smartphone to smartphone on WeChat, a three-year-old social messaging app developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd. WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, meaning "micromessage", leapt from 121 million global monthly active users at the end of September 2012 to 272 million in just a year. It has quickly become the news source of choice for savvy mobile users in China, where a small army of censors scrub the country's Internet of politically sensitive news and "harmful" speech. Unlike popular microblogging services such as Sina Corp's Sina Weibo, where messages can reach millions of people in minutes, WeChat allows users to communicate in small, private circles of friends, and send text and voice messages for free - a big part of its success. Weibo has been particularly singled-out in the ongoing crackdown on "rumour-mongering" by China's stability-obsessed government, which views public protest as a threat to its authority. But WeChat has not escaped the government's attention, and its explosive growth means it is attracting more scrutiny than ever from the authorities. The Chinese characters above reads "China Mobile". Picture taken December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS TELECOMS)

BEIJING (AP) — China's government tightened control over popular instant messaging services Thursday after telling South Korea that access to some foreign services was blocked because they were used to exchange terrorism-related information.

The government announced that only established media companies will be allowed to release political and social news. That would curtail the growing use of instant messaging services by journalists and scholars to distribute independent news reports and commentary.

The ruling Communist Party has repeatedly tightened controls over microblogs and other social media that give Chinese a rare platform to express themselves to a large audience in a country where all traditional media are state-controlled.

China informed South Korea it has blocked access to two mobile messaging services, Kakao Talk and Line, which it said were used to exchange terrorism-related information, according to a South Korean official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

China's government is on edge about security following a series of deadly attacks that authorities blame on Islamic radicals seeking independence for the country's northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Beijing says it has confirmed terrorism-related information circulated through Kakao Talk and Line, the South Korean official said. It was not clear how Beijing had access to messages between users of the two services, which are private and seen only by the participants.

Chinese authorities gave no information about which terrorists might use the message services, the official said. He declined to give more details.

In May, the government launched a one-month crackdown on instant messaging services to stop what it called the "infiltration of hostile forces." Authorities said it targeted people spreading rumors and information about violence, terrorism or pornography.

The campaign targeted public accounts on services including WeChat in China, a mobile message service run by Tencent Holdings Ltd., which has surged in popularity in the last two years.

Canny Lo, spokeswoman for Tencent, said the company complies with government policies where it operates and endeavors to provide a healthy and secure online environment for users.

Last summer, Beijing cracked down on microblogging services such as Sina Weibo in an apparent effort to stifle criticism of the Communist Party. Authorities closed accounts of liberal-minded microbloggers and detained bloggers on criminal charges of spreading rumors or other offenses.

The crackdown helped drive users to WeChat, which allows individuals to set up public accounts that others can subscribe to, similar to the microblogging feature of having followers but without a word limit.

Journalists and scholars have since set up accounts and attracted sizeable followings on WeChat.

"Our information management does not allow for any blank space. It would be regulated later or sooner, and it is only a matter of time," said Hu Yong, professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University and an expert on the Internet.

The public accounts have created a new venue for information-sharing, and now "the government needs to block the content which it deems 'harmful,'" Hu said.

Compared to its response to microblogging, Beijing has reacted faster to WeChat and similar services. Government agencies and state media have set up public accounts and censors remove accounts deemed offensive.


Associated Press Technology Writer Youkyung Lee in Seoul and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.