China warns WhatsApp to stop spread of 'illegal information'

Beijing - China has hit out at WhatsApp, saying the messaging service should act to stop the spread of "illegal information" as the country seeks greater scrutiny over the internet in the run-up to its once-in-five years Communist Party congress.

WhatsApp should take proactive measures to intercept information to do with violence and terror, the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement in response to questions from Bloomberg News. China has the authority to tell institutions to take these measures, said the agency, without specifying details of content it considered illegal.

"A country’s cyberspace sovereignty should be protected," it added.

A spokesperson for WhatsApp declined to comment. 

The response comes as China is seen to be tightening the screws on WhatsApp, which has until recently been one of the only remaining major messaging services to operate unfettered in the country.

Beijing has been employing cutting-edge surveillance technology to disrupt the messaging service as part of a longer-term online crackdown, according to Nadim Kobeissi, a cryptographer at Paris-based online security firm Symbolic Software.

The interference - which saw WhatsApp’s service interrupted across China at the weekend before it was resumed - marks a step up from July, when local users began experiencing sporadic issues sending images and voice messages. 

The government has slapped fines on media and technology companies for failing to screen content, shuttered celebrity gossip sites, and punished chat-group administrators on Tencent’s WeChat service for hosting sensitive content. The congress, which is due to get under way on October 18, will see a twice-a-decade reshuffle of the party leadership.

“China’s Internet is fully open,” the administration said. “We welcome internet companies from various countries to provide Chinese internet users with good information services.”

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