INTERNET: Whatsapp Goes Spotty in China, Headed for Shutout?

Bottom line: China’s apparent partial blockage of some Whatsapp functions for brief periods is unlikely to end with a total blockage, mostly because the service is used almost exclusively by foreigners.

Whatsapp temporarily blocked in China

Foreign media are buzzing about what appears to be the blockage of some functions on Whatsapp, with the obvious implication that a full blockage of the the popular instant messaging app could be next. This particular story has a few interesting angles, led by the fact that Whatsapp isn’t used by very many Chinese and also that it’s owned by social networking giant Facebook (Nasdaq: FB).

There are a also a number of precedents to go by, none of which looks too positive for the future of Whatsapp. Just about every other major global social networking app has been blocked in China by now, including Facebook itself, as well as Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) and Japan-listed Line (Tokyo: 3938). But there are a few notable exceptions that have been allowed to keep operating in China, one of which is Whatsapp and two others being the Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) owned Skype and LinkedIn

All that said, let’s look at exactly what has happened, and then move on to what may be in line for Whatsapp. Before we begin, I should add some disclosure that I’m a Whatsapp user, so I’m quite familiar with the service. Thus I can say quite definitively that few or none of my Chinese friends use the service, and instead I use Whatsapp exclusively for maintaining contact with my foreign contacts, mostly in Hong Kong, the US and Singapore.

That reality is probably what has allowed Whatsapp to keep functioning in China up until now, despite its offshore roots. By comparison, services like Facebook and Twitter were starting to gain big user bases in China when Beijing abruptly cut them off in 2009, paving the way for the rapid rise of homegrown substitutes like Weibo (Nasdaq: WB), which are easier to control.

With all that background in mind, let’s look at the latest headlines, which appear to have their origins in a New York Times report saying some Whatsapp functions weren’t working in China at some point this week. (English article) Specifically, some people were unable to send photos and videos over the app, and even text messages were unsendable, the report says.

Hard to Say

As a veteran journalist in China, I’ve seen this kind of reporting before and can personally say that it’s very hard to confirm what’s going on in these situations. That’s because China never says what it’s doing, and companies like Whatsapp will seldom comment. The New York Times does cite several people, including one unnamed source and several named ones who appear to have enough knowledge to say this wasn’t just a fluke caused by bad Internet connections.

That kind of sourcing, plus the fact the Times is reporting the story, does appear to show that something is indeed going on. The bigger question, of course, is what exactly is happening. It’s quite common for China to periodically block news sites for days or even weeks, especially when they write articles on sensitive topics. Likewise, it’s also common to see VPNs blocked during sensitive times, like the upcoming Communist Party convention that will happen later this year. I consider these kinds of moves a sort of muscle flexing by the censors aimed at showing people who’s boss.

All that said, I honestly can’t see Whatsapp being permanently shut out of China. The main reasons are two-fold. The first, which I’ve already stated above, is that the service is almost exclusively used by foreigners and thus doesn’t really seem to pose much threat to China.

The second is a bit more subtle, namely because the service is owned by Facebook. That’s quite important, because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been a huge China cheerleader for quite a few years now, and frequently attends big government-sponsored events and does other things to give Beijing big face and add credibility to its Internet policies.

Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal is to get a Sinofied version of Facebook into China. Still, a shutout of his Whatsapp from the market would be a major slap in the face, even though such a move is still technically possible if China feels the service is being exploited by people that could pose a security risk.

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