•  WeChat Ecosystem Innovation speech delivered at the 3rd World Internet Conference.

WeChat Ecosystem Innovation speech delivered at the 3rd World Internet Conference. (Photo : Getty Images)

According to a study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, WeChat accounts associated with a mainland China-based phone number will still have their content censored even if they leave China or switch to an overseas phone number.

Tencent Holdings Limited is scraping new posts and blocking private texts containing keywords in WeChat once they have their account registered with their China-based phone number. It is reported that accounts created overseas do not face the same restrictions.

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Tencent is expanding WeChat while still complying with China’s local laws, regulations and domestic government controls on information. According to an emailed statement, “WeChat has and will always adhere to Tencent’s core mission to create value.”

The researchers from Citizen Lab tested 26,821 keywords that have been blocked on other websites. They found out that 174 words and expressions triggered censorship on the app, and if it is detected by the servers of WeChat in China, the message won’t be sent.

These keywords are updated frequently. They are either adding new keywords in their databse or removing previously banned keywords from their blacklist after evaluation. Group chats are monitored more compared to one-to-one messages.

Jason Q. Ng, a research fellow from Citizen Lab, said: “The idea that you can’t escape a censorship system imposed on you at the time of registration is a troubling one.”

Lotus Ruan, a researcher for Citizen Lab, said that Tencent also stopped notifying users if their messages were intercepted, making its operations less transparent. Texts sent from overseas users to a Chinese account simply wouldn’t appear on the receiver’s app.

Tencent is not the first company that enforces censorship on their messaging app. According to Citizen Lab, Line Corporation has also filtered keywords for their Chinese users in 2014. They have found about 370 keywords that triggered censorship.