You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Japanese Chat Service Builds In Censorship for China-Based Users

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, November 21 2013

Screenshot of the Citizen Lab's list of censored phrases

Some users of the popular chat application LINE get a custom version of the program, complete with built-in keyword censorship. If someone sets their country location to China during installation, the app downloads a list of censored words from LINE's host server and then any messages containing censored words is blocked. The findings are part of a report by The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, the first of a series on Asian chat and instant messaging applications.

LINE was developed by the Japanese LINE Corporation, which is itself a subsidiary of the Naver Corporation in South Korea. Released in June 2011, the application has already garnered 280 million users. They launched Lianwo, their application for the Chinese market, at the end of 2012.

The Citizen Lab report by analyst Seth Hardy found that the censorship functionality has been active as far back as January 18, 2013, shortly after the release of the Chinese version of LINE.

The most recent block list (version 21) contains 370 keywords, up from 223 keywords in the previous version. It includes phrases like “candlelight vigil,” “organ harvesting,” which followers of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong have accused the Communist Party of China of doing to executed members, and “Xi Hu Beidaihe,” the name of the resort town where CCP leaders gather to discuss policies. Citizen Lab has compiled a list of all 370 censored terms, with notes when necessary.

When Citizen Lab compared the censored terms in LINE to the censored terms in other communication applications like Sina UC and TOM-Skype, they found little overlap in terms of exact matches, but many approximate matches (terms relating to the CPC, June 4, and Falun Gong, for example). From this they conclude that the Chinese government did not provide a list of precise terms to censor, but instead might give general guidelines.

The author of the report collaborated with developer Greg Wiseman to build a LINE Region Code Encrypter Tool, so that LINE clients can disable regional keyword censorship.

A spokesperson for LINE told The Next Web that “Lianwo has been optimized to its local environment and is being serviced as so. It is being serviced by local standards and regulations and it does not harm any global Line services.”

In an update on November 19, Citizen Lab counters that their report covers censorship in the global version of LINE, not the Lianwo version. They add “it is unclear whether the Lianwo version of LINE has additional functionality or is merely rebranded.”

Censorship in China has been a popular topic in recent weeks. Just last week ProPublica launched a nifty interactive photo gallery of images deleted from Sina Weibo in the past five months.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list.