Chinese users of the instant messenger Signal knew that the good times wouldn’t last long. The app, which is used for encrypted conversations, is unavailable in mainland China as of the morning of March 16, a test by TechCrunch shows. The website of the app has been banned in mainland China since March 15, according to censorship tracking website Greatfire.org.
Signal could not be immediately reached for comment.
The encrypted chat app was one of the few Western social networks that remained accessible in China without the use of a virtual private network. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have long been blocked. In some way, a ban is a badge of honor, signifying a foreign app reaches a substantial user base in China that catches the attention of local authorities.
Signal is still available for download on Apple’s Chinese App Store as of March 16, an indication that Apple hasn’t received a government order to remove the app, which is gradually gaining ground among China’s tech-savvy, privacy-conscious users. The app has 4.9 out of 5 from 37,000 ratings on the Chinese App Store. Android stores in China are operated by third-party tech firms as Google Play is unavailable in the country.
China’s elaborate Great Firewall has made many internet users experts on censorship circumvention. Service bans are normally layered, as the Clubhouse case shows. While the drop-in audio app was unavailable on the Chinese App Store, users found ways to install it in foreign App Stores and used it freely without censorship-fighting tools until the app’s API was blocked. Even after that, China-based users realized they could listen once they entered a room through a VPN, as Clubhouse’s audio technology provider Agora remains accessible in China.