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06 October 2008, 12:14

Skype admits censorship and invasion of privacy in China

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Josh Silverman, president of internet telephony company Skype, has admitted there has been censorship and invasion of privacy in China, where political messages have been filtered and stored. In the Skype company blog, Silverman says his company was unaware that its partner in China, TOM Online, had been storing censored text messages allegedly containing politically sensitive words. Silverman said he was concerned that "a security breach … made it possible for people to gain access to those stored messages on TOM's servers. We were very concerned to learn about both issues." TOM, he said, had now eliminated the security problems.

Silverman openly admitted that the Chinese version of Skype filtered and blocked specific messages that contained such words as "Communist Party", "Tibet" or "democracy". "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." He said that TOM, the majority local partner in Skype's joint venture, was obliged to meet local laws and regulations, just like any other communications company in China. "These regulations include the requirement to monitor and block instant messages containing certain words deemed 'offensive' by the Chinese authorities."

Skype publicly disclosed in 2006 that TOM operated a text filter. It was Skype's understanding at that time, said Silverman, that such messages were "simply discarded" and not stored. His statement was a reaction to a report by experts and human-rights activists of the Citizen Lab group of researchers at the University of Toronto, which claimed that the messages, together with personal information about the users, had been uploaded to unsecured servers that were vulnerable to external access and that even contained the codes required for decrypting the data.

Silverman confirmed that Skype users in other countries would also be liable to these checks if they communicated with any of the seventy million users of TOM Skype in China. Where all parties were using the standard Skype software, however, their communications were "completely secure and private", he emphasised.


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