Clubhouse, a pioneering audio-only social media platform, is not available in China. But this was not the case before the night of Feb. 8, when censorship authorities silenced the app and threw it outside the Great Firewall.
The move appears to have resulted from recent activity in the app. Ahead of the ban, thousands had shared stories about Xinjiang, home of the nation’s persecuted Uyghur population.
This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy chat with three of the guests in a remarkable room titled “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” on the drop-in voice chat app Clubhouse, which ran for 14 hours on Saturday, February 6.https://t.co/6UOKRzJoxW
— SupChina (@supchinanews) February 11, 2021
What happened: Most major social media platforms are blocked in mainland China. Clubhouse, whose popularity surged in recent months, served as a fresh space for free speech among users in the country, as well as the Chinese diaspora.
- Ahead of the ban, one Clubhouse “room” heard a female teen living in the mainland apologize to an Uyghur woman, whose parents had been sent to one of the region’s “re-education” camps. More than 1,000 listeners reportedly heard the emotional exchange.
- The speaker broke down in tears, apologizing not only for the woman’s experiences but also for her failure to help. “The only word that I could hear her say clearly was ‘sorry,’” wrote Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reporter Bang Xiao, who was present in the room.
- The next few hours heard more Uyghur speakers open up about their own experiences. But many who identified as Han Chinese — China’s ethnic majority — also came forward to share their knowledge of the camps.
- One speaker even identified as an alleged member of the Chinese Communist Party. They claimed to have visited a camp in the past.
- Aside from the Xinjiang situation, other controversial topics were also brought to light. These include the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and cross-strait relations between the mainland and Taiwan.
The censorship: Hours after what can only be construed as a rare moment of solidarity, Chinese censors began to take action. Soon enough, mainland users were logged out of the app, unable to access their accounts again.
- Many reported seeing error messages after trying to use the app. Some allegedly circumvented the censorship through virtual private networks (VPN), but it’s unclear how successful they were.
- Weibo searches for the word “Clubhouse” were also blocked. Soon, a new Clubhouse room titled “Walled off, so now what?” showed up, drawing over a thousand listeners.
- “It was only a matter of time,” Alex Su, an editor in Beijing, told The New York Times. Su managed to spend some time in Clubhouse.
- Like many others, the 30-year-old was especially moved by personal stories from Xinjiang. “That is really the kind of information that we don’t usually get access to in the mainland,” Su added.
- Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times — a media outlet tracking China’s internet controls — says Clubhouse’s massive, freewheeling conversation is exactly what censors hate to see. “It’s also a reminder that when there is an opportunity, many Chinese have a desperate need to talk to each other and to hear different viewpoints,” Qiang told the New York Times.
📢 New work out today from our Tech team & China research team: @joinClubhouse app recently became popular in 🇨🇳. We looked at its data security practices & found a potential risk to mainland Chinese users.
Here are our key findings 👋🧵⤵️
— Stanford Internet Observatory (@stanfordio) February 13, 2021
Improving security: Clubhouse has not released a statement in response to China’s censorship. But the New York-based app is improving its security after Stanford researchers discovered that Agora Inc., a tech company in Shanghai, “supplies back-end infrastructure to the Clubhouse App.”
- The Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) found that users’ unique Clubhouse ID numbers and room IDs are transmitted in plaintext. This would likely give Agora, which makes real-time engagement software, access to raw Clubhouse audio.
- The researchers said they found metadata from a Clubhouse room “being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in” China. At the same time, the audio was being sent “to servers managed by Chinese entities and distributed around the world.”
- The fact that Agora is under Chinese jurisdiction requires the company to assist the government in locating and storing data that pose a threat to national security. In response to these findings, Clubhouse developers are placing “additional encryption and blocks” to prevent users “from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers.”
- Agora reportedly told the SIO that they do not store user data for purposes other than monitoring network quality and billing clients. Additionally, as long as this information is stored in U.S. servers, the Chinese government will be unable to access them.
- “[Agora] does not have access to, share, or store personally identifiable end-user data,” a spokesperson told The Verge. “Voice or video traffic from non-China based users — including U.S. users — is never routed through China.”