skype china, skype censorship, skype user information

Skype Is Latest U.S. Company Caught in Chinese Controversy

October 06, 2008 05:58 AM
by Denis Cummings
Skype has come under criticism after it was discovered that its Chinese partner has been censoring messages and logging user data.

Skype Collects User Data

Researchers at University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed Wednesday that they discovered online text message and voice service Tom-Skype—Skype’s Chinese operation—maintained an online database containing censored messages and users’ personal information. In a 16-page report, Citizen Lab states that Tom-Skype messages are scanned for politically sensitive keywords and, if certain keywords are found, uploaded and stored on a Chinese server.

“You can see that they’ve been tracking people who have been using Skype as a platform to promote freedom of expression and to criticize the communist party in China,” said Nart Villeneuve, who discovered the database while trying to find the password to his Chinese MySpace account. “We don't know who they gave access to those logs.”

It is widely believed that the Chinese government had access to the data, and likely ordered Tom-Skype to collect it. The government has been active in censoring political dissent and controversial content on the Internet, creating what has become known as the “Great Firewall of China.” Internet providers must agree to block certain content if they are to be allowed to operate in China, but they are not forced to collect and hand over data.
Skype admitted Thursday that its service was used to censor messages and spy on users, but said that it was unaware of the activity. Skype president Josh Silverman blamed Chinese carrier Tom Mobile, Skype’s partner in China.

“In April 2006, Skype publicly disclosed that TOM operated a text filter that blocked certain words in chat messages, and it also said that if the message is found unsuitable for displaying, it is simply discarded and not displayed or transmitted anywhere,” he wrote in a blog post. “It was our understanding that it was not TOM’s protocol to upload and store chat messages with certain keywords, and we are now inquiring with TOM to find out why the protocol changed.”

Many Internet users in China are not surprised by the news, having been suspicious of Tom-Skype for the last two years. “We already knew that their software would not pass on messages with some words in them, so we understood they had some deal with the government and we avoided them,” said dissident writer Wang Lixiong.

The Associated Press’s Peter Svensson writes that Skype may be collecting information for Western governments, as well. He quotes British security expert Bruce Schneier, who says “For a couple of years, maybe more, people have had the suspicion ... that Skype pretends to be secure but actually isn't. The Chinese eavesdropping on Skype text messages only adds to the PR problems, the image problems, that Skype has among those who care about security.”

Background: Foreign Internet companies in China

In 2005, when Skype looked to expand into China, it was told by TOM Online that it must agree to censor certain phrases. “No filtering, no service,” wrote Ben Elgin and Bruce Einhorn in BusinessWeek. “At first Skype executives resisted, says a source familiar with the venture. But after it became clear that Skype had no choice, the company relented.”

Other foreign Internet companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, have faced the same situation and agreed to filter certain content. For a company like Yahoo that hosts sites on Chinese servers, government regulation is even stricter.

As a result, Chinese Internet users are unable to access sites containing controversial topics like the Tiananmen Massacre or Falun Gong. The government’s “Great Firewall” has been widely criticized by Internet users and civil liberties groups, but businesses see it as a cost of doing business in China.
“It is common knowledge that censorship does exist in China and that the Chinese government has been monitoring communications in and out of the country for many years,” wrote Skype president Josh Silverman on Thursday. “TOM, like every other communications service provider operating in China, has an obligation to be compliant if they are to be able to operate in China at all.”

Internet companies are not obligated to collect or hand over user activity or personal information. However, Yahoo agreed in 2004 to give the Chinese government information from activist Shi Tao’s Yahoo e-mail account; Tao was later given a 10-year prison sentence. Yahoo was condemned by civil liberties groups, Congress and Chinese Internet users for collaborating in the government’s crackdown on dissidence.

In 2006, Chinese blogger Zhao Jing praised Google and Microsoft, despite the fact that Microsoft had agreed to shut down his blog. “Companies such as Microsoft and Google have provided Chinese netizens with much freedom of information,” he said. A company such as Yahoo! which gives up information [about dissidents] is unforgivable.”

Skype is now facing condemnation similar to what Yahoo faced because it did more than just censor content. “The problem with Skype is that they did more than what people expected,” respected Chinese blogger Isaac Mao told Reuters. “They over-satisfied the government.”

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