Signal and Telegram are also growing in China — for now
After WhatsApp's pop-up notification reminding users that they are sharing their data with the parent Facebook, people fled to alternative encrypted platforms. Telegram only added 25 million between Jan. 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal rose to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozen of countries, TechCrunch had previously learned.
The migration was sped up when Elon Musk asked his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet on Jan. 7 that likely sparked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.
The growth of Telegram and Signal in China is nowhere near as noteworthy as their surge in popularity in regions where WhatsApp was the mainstream chat app, but the elevation is a reminder that WeChat alternatives are still available in various capacities in China .
According to research firm Sensor Tower, Signal collected 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8th and January 12th, an increase of 500% over the period between January 3rd and 7th. Telegram added 17,000 downloads Jan 8-12, 6% more than Jan 3-7. WhatsApp's growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.
Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has had a total of about 2.7 million installs on the Chinese App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.
The fact that Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp are available in China might surprise some people. However, China's censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As the censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.
The situation for Android is more difficult. Google services are largely blocked in China, and Android users are turning to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal are available in these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China's great firewall, such as: B. a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messenger.
The next challenge is to actually use these apps. The main chat apps are all treated a little differently than Beijing's censorship machine. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. The catch is to sign up for Signal, a user has to activate their account with a phone number, and Chinese phone numbers are tied to people's real identity. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works without a VPN in China even though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn't work at all without a VPN.
"Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain user threshold, at which point the authorities try to block or disrupt the website or app," said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization that does this Chinese Internet monitors that is also running Apple Censorship.
"Perhaps Signal didn't have that many users in China prior to this mass migration of WhatsApp. That may have changed in the last week. In that case, authorities might be considering restrictions on Signal," added Smith.
In order to operate legally in China, companies must store their data in China and submit information to the authorities for verification purposes. This corresponds to a cybersecurity law passed in 2017. For example, Apple is working with a local cloud provider to store the data from its Chinese users.
The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction Signal, Telegram and other foreign apps have with Chinese authorities. Signal said it never gave data to Hong Kong police and did not provide data as concerns about Beijing's increased control of the former British colony grew.
The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China will come from Apple, according to Smith, which is under constant fire from investors and activists for filing it with the Chinese authorities.
In recent years, the American giant has stepped up its crackdown on apps in China, focusing on services that give Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as: B. VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple also deleted tens of thousands of unlicensed games in the past few quarters after years of delay.
"Apple has historically censored apps that they believe the authorities are trying to censor," said Smith. "If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a government request, Apple customers in China will not be left with secure messaging options."
Apple's iCloud user data in China is now being processed by a state-owned cellular operator
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