- On Tuesday, users in mainland China confirmed that Signal is no longer working in the country without using a VPN.
- China’s cyber authorities have become more strict in recent years, with a wide scope of apps, social media platforms, and media outlets banned in the country.
- The app is still accessible on Apple’s China app store as of Tuesday morning.
- The Signal app and website seem to be running normally in Hong Kong.
- There has been no response from Signal regarding the development.
- In China, where Google services are blocked, the app was already unavailable on third-party Android stores.
- Signal witnessed a surge in downloads globally after WhatsApp updated its privacy policies, reserving the right to share users’ data, such as phone number and location, with its parent firm Facebook Inc and its other units, including Instagram and Messenger.
- According to Sensor Tower, Signal has observed about 510,000 times download in China on iOS and more than 100 million times download on the App Store and Google Play combined across the globe.
- WeChat, Tencent’s all-in-one mobile app, is China’s dominant messaging platform that also offers payment functions and other services. It boasts over a billion users worldwide.
India has blocked hundreds of China-linked apps in the past year during the two countries’ border standoff. However, a ban on international apps and websites is not something new in the People’s Republic of China. Unlike India, where doors are always open for domestic and international platforms, its neighbor country follows very strict internet censorship (1).
China’s strict censorship, also known as the Great Firewall of China, has existed for over a decade. Internet in China is a world unto itself, and the government constantly monitors the content. Even the world’s most popular apps and websites, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, are not easily accessible in China.
The country invests heavily in internet monitoring and censorship to the extent that it even hurts its economy. People there use VPN, virtual private networks to circumvent censorship. VPN offers an encrypted channel to connect to an internet server in another nation and normally browse the internet. However, VPNs are quite slow and delay every app and site loading time, censored or not.
According to the Chinese National Security Law passed in 2017 (2), messaging apps with a certain encryption level are prohibited. People would either need VPN or SSR to access these apps.
Hence, even Signal, incepted in 2015, a free messaging application with end-to-end encryption should be banned in the country. But until now, people were comfortably using the platform in mainland China.
On Monday, several reports started surging across the internet as Chinese users faced trouble accessing the app. On Tuesday Morning, users from the country have confirmed that Signal could no longer work without using a VPN (3).
It is worth highlighting that the app had stopped working in the past on several occasions for no reason, only for its service to resume.
Is the Signal app banned in China? Is it permanent? Why did China decide to ban the platform? Let’s read on to know the full story.
Signal Stops Working in China
Signal, an encrypted messaging application that competes with Facebook’s WhatsApp, seems to have been banned in China, the latest move of Beijing to crackdown on social media platforms.
Since Monday night, it had been difficult for signal users to use the app in China without a VPN, which allows users to mask their location and access blocked communication services such as Twitter and Gmail. Previously, Chinese users needed no such software to access Signal.
There is no immediate clarity whether this is a permanent ban since Chinese regulators have been known to sometimes ramp-up controls as a trial run only to let them down later on. There has been no immediate reply from the administration of China upon request for comment.
Signal has been a popular tool among political agitators and journalists looking out for communication methods to minimize the risk of messages being intercepted by the Chinese government censors and bad actors. The app has particularly gained traction among China’s largely Muslim Uyghur diaspora (4).
China, where heavy government censorship is normal, open discussion of the sensitive topic is off-limits. In February, the country had also blocked the audio-based social media platform, Clubhouse after it briefly allowed a free-flowing debate on political matters (5).
Signal recently gained popularity when several WhatsApp users balked at the changes in its privacy policies. It is also worth highlighting that Elon Musk, the Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Inc, also gave Signal a boost when he recommended the platform in one of his tweets.
According to Sensor Tower, the Signal’s iOS version has been installed about 510,000 times in China to date. Globally, Signal has recently crossed 100 million in stores across the App Store and Google Play combined, stated the industry intelligence firm (6).
Why is Signal Down in China?
Signal users in China always knew that the good time is not going to last. According to a TechCrunch’s report, the instant messenger, primarily used for encrypted conversation, has been unavailable in China as of March 16’s morning. According to Greatfire.org, the website of the app has been banned in mainland China since March 15 (7).
There have been no comments for the same from Signal.
The Signal chat app was one of the few western social networking platforms accessible in China without using a VPN. Popular platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have long been blocked. One can also say that a ban is a badge of honor, indicating that the app has reached a substantial user base in China and has caught local authorities’ attention.
As of writing the piece, Signal is still available for download on Apple’s China App Store as of March 16. It also indicates that the tech giant may not have received a government order to remove the app, gaining ground gradually among China’s privacy-conscious and tech-savvy users. It is worth noting that Signal has 4.9 out of 5 from more than 37,000 ratings on the China App Store.
A slew of third-party Chinese tech firms operates Android stores in China. They strictly comply with local censors. Hence, they haven’t even listed Signal. Google Play is blocked in China.
However, there is little to no impact in China, as Tencent’s WeChat commands an onerous share in its social networking space with 1.1 billion monthly users. Regardless, both Signal and Telegram saw a small user uptick in mainland China.
As of January 2021, Telegram had more than 2.7 million installs on China’s App Store, compared to 9.5 downloads for WhatsApp and about 458,000 downloads for Signal. Similar to Signal, both WhatsApp and Telegram are present on the Chinese App Store. However, users would need VPNs to access these platforms.
It is worth highlighting that China’s Great Firewall has made several users experts in censorship circumvention. As the Clubhouse case indicates, app bans in China are often layered as well.
While users can’t find the drop-in audio app on the China App Store, they discovered that one can still install it via foreign App stores. Users used the platform freely without any censorship-fighting tools until authorities had blocked the app’s API. Even after that, China-based users discovered that they could listen once they enter a chat room through a VPN since Clubhouse’s audio technology provider Agora is accessible in the country.
As we discussed, Chinese officials often cut off foreign apps and websites and brought them back, as in the case with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. There is no clarity whether the ban is permanent, but considering the app’s growth in the country, it could mark the end of its short life in mainland China.
How Signal Became Popular in China?
Back in August 2020, when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, he executed an order to ban American use of WeChat, the most popular app in China (8). However, at the same time, some Chinese users had already started to turn towards an American app known for its privacy protections.
At that time, the app’s spokesperson had stated that downloads for Signal are spiking in China.
The Chinese authority heavily regulates domestic internet users, leading most of its citizens to WeChat, a multipurpose messaging platform that offers payment services, games, ridesharing options, among other uses.
Trump had cited the likelihood that WeChat sends American users’ data to the Chinese government. He then signed an executive order banning companies and people in the United States from engaging in any transaction with the app starting from September 20.
China’s Great Firewall restricts citizens from directly accessing much of the internet and bans easy access to most major western social media platforms. While only a small fraction of Americans use Wechat, a ban had hampered people who used the platform to communicate with friends, families, and business associates in China.
The Great Firewall had not blocked Signal both for iPhones through the App Store and Android users through a direct download from Signal’s official online portal since Google Play Store is banned.
Jun Harada, Signal’s spokesperson (9), had stated that, believe it or not, we are not banned in China. Even though he declined to share download numbers, he stated that downloads in China started to skyrocket in the hours before the ban.
It seemed that China had been looking to be on par, if not more significant, than when Signal made it to #1 in the App Store in Hong Kong (10), he added. He had referred to a spike in Signal’s download in July 2020, when China started to implement its National Security Law (11), which offered the country broad powers to crack down on protests in Hong Kong.
Harada further added that the incident helped Singal get more mainstream awareness within China, especially with the Chinese diaspora.
Privacy experts have always given Signal high marks since it stores little data about its users, and the messages exchanged on the platform are also end-to-end encrypted. It means that if a government accesses these messages in transit, they would only see them encoded.
Yaqui Wang, a China-based researcher at Human Rights Watch (12), stated that she has longed to use Signal to communicate with people even inside China. However, she was cautioned that the government would block the platform if it catches the censor’s eyes.
Wang had stated that Chinese authorities would block Signal if it gains popularity, similar to what it did with Telegram and WhatsApp. She further added that the internet bifurcation and the formation of two parallel information and communication universes are becoming more and more evident.
China’ Social Networks Inconsistent Policy
Signal would presumably take the recent ban as an indication that it has reached a sturdy user base in China, which has led it to come under the Chinese authorities’ radar.
As discussed, Signal was gaining much popularity in China, and its user base was increasing because of the endorsements from China’s tech-savvy population and privacy-conscious users (13).
It may come as a surprise to many to know that all three social networking platforms, WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, were accessible in China until now (14).
China has indicated that its censorship decisions can be random and are mostly inconsistent. Even though Google services are largely barred in China, Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies, such as Baidu and Tencent. Users with the tools that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a VPN, can access and connect with Google Play Store and install the encrypted messengers.
Charlie Smith, Great Fire’s pseudonymous head, stated that there are several websites and apps that can remain intact until they reach a particular threshold of users. At that point, the authorities would try to other describe the website or app, or blocker (15).
Companies must also store the data within China to work legally in the country. They must also submit all the information to the Chinese authorities for security and spot checks according to the cybersecurity law enacted in 2017.
For instance, the tech giant Apple stores Chinese users’ data within the country with the local cloud provider partners.
With the recent ‘down’ of the Signal, it had earlier stated that single had the company had never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when apprehensions surged over China’s direct controls over Hong Kong.
We can say that Apple has been quite intelligent comparatively since the tech giant has a history of proactively censoring apps that they believe the Chinese authorities would want to censor. If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in response to the authorities asking, Apple’s customers in mainland China would be left with no secure messaging options.
Apple had initially transitioned its data from its US-based services to local servers in the country. The move had raised notable concerns among observers who despaired that the move would grant the Chinese authorities more straightforward access to users’ sensitive data.
Before Apple announced the switch in January, all encryption for Chinese users was stored in the United States. It means that the Chinese authorities needed to go through the United States legal system to get the information. Presently, the situation is currently based on the Chinese court officials and a gatekeeper that the Chinese government owns.
Apple had also issued a statement that the company is compelled to switch to local service in mainland China to comply with authorities’ demand. However, Apple users in China have an option that is still available. They can choose to opt-out of local data storage by selecting a country other than China for their cloud account. However, it is unclear whether the switch to another country would see information migrated or deleted from the Chinese servers.
But for now, Signal users in China are probably scratching their heads, as yet another social networking platform they were relying on bites the dust.