On May 4, Russia’s federal censor blocked WeChat, China’s largest mobile messaging app. According to Roskomnadzor, WeChat failed to register with the federal government as an “information-dissemination organizer,” which is technically required of a wide range of websites and online services.
Since 2014, the Russian government has managed a list of online services that “organize the dissemination of information.” Today, this list includes websites like Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki (Russia’s two most popular social networks), the image board 2ch.hk, the email client Mail.ru, and dozens more services.
The list was introduced following the passage of a federal law that requires websites to store all Russian users’ metadata (“information about the arrival, transmission, delivery, and processing of voice data, written text, images, sounds, or other kinds of action”) and make it accessible to the Russian authorities.
Websites can avoid the hassle of setting aside this information by granting Russian officials unfettered, constant access to their entire data stream. According to the Internet rights watchdog Roskomsvoboda, Russian censors have already blocked more than two dozen IP addresses linked to the domains and services of Tencent, the maker of WeChat.
The move against China’s biggest messaging app is just the latest in an ongoing crackdown on messengers, including recent decisions to block BlackBerry Messenger, Naver’s Line, and Vchat — also for failing to register with Moscow.
In April, following weeks of organized strikes by truckers against a federal road tax, Roskomnadzor blocked Zello, a push-to-talk app popular among protest organizers.
Artem Kozlyuk, head of Roskomsvoboda, spoke to RuNet Echo about the implications of WeChat being blocked in Russia:
“In Russia, WeChat and Line are not the most popular instant messengers, but nevertheless they’re used by our citizens to communicate with relatives, friends, and colleagues in Central Asia and South-East Asia, where these messengers are popular.
“Now that we know these messengers are de facto impervious to surveillance by Russia’s intelligence community, I think interest in them will increase in Russia.”
On social media, the response to the WeChat block ranged from humorous levity to solidarity.
Роскомнадзор заблокировал WeChat: https://t.co/q7niZgvPKI
И как теперь Путин будет с Си Цзяньпином переписываться? Смсками, что ли?
— Vladimir Kharitonov (@v_x) 5 May 2017
“Roskomnadzor has blocked WeChat. How’s Putin going to talk with Xi Jinping now? Texting or what?”
On Vkontakte, one user commented on Roskomsvoboda’s page:
“[WeChat] survived under the PRC’s censorship, but will be finished off in Russia? That makes sense? haha”
Another Vkontakte user wrote:
“We’ll survive the blocks. The important thing is that they didn’t cooperate with our authorities and carry out their requirements. And we will figure out how to get around the block.”
Although access to blocked websites is still possible through “anonymizers” like Tor and VPN services, in April Roskomnadzor described plans to block access to websites that offer circumvention technology.
While messenger apps can successfully avoid blocking by registering with Roskomnadzor ( for example, Threema recently became the first foreign-app to register with the Russian government), Kozlyuk believes the WeChat block bodes ill for users of popular Western messaging apps like Whatsapp and Telegram:
“Of course, this signals that Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and Viber should be ready: they can either submit to the demands of Roskomnadzor and the Federal Security Service and monitor their users, or they can be blocked.
“I think we’ll see the outcome of these, if not in the coming days, then in the coming months.”
[Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]
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