Using Skype in China becoming illegal

Usually I love living in China, thirstily drinking the kool-aid that this place is changing for the better, improving a little bit every day. Sure it has its warts, but compared to 5 years ago, 15 years ago, 35 years ago… it’s definitely improving — right?

Then Youtube gets blocked, Facebook and Twitter follow, as do pretty much all major UGC/SMS sites. Ok, ok, it’s a complete pain in the ass, seems totally backwards and is making the country look more like its paranoid DPRK neighbours than a major player on the world stage. But maybe things were getting a little too out of hand with free speach 2.0, and the whole system needed to be throttled a bit to keep Zhongnanhai comfortable with modernization.

But this is just getting ridiculous:

Shanghai Daily: The Chinese regulator has declared Internet phone services other than those provided by China Telecom and China Unicom as illegal, which is expected to make services like Skype unavailable in the country.

The decision was criticized as a measure to protect the duopoly of state-owned telecom carriers, media reports said yesterday.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said all VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) phone services are illegal on the Chinese mainland, except those provided by telecommunications carriers China Telecom and China Uniom. The ministry gave no timetable on when the ruling takes effect.

While the news certainly has the sheen of classic capitalist monopolistic greed parred with a healthy dose of official-oiling guanxi (an outrage in its own right), effectively it comes back down to control. One pipe in, one pipe out. The Walls are closing in. Soon we’ll not be allowed to own a computer without government registration and real-time tracking installed.

Some days are days to remind me why I live here, and some days are days to remind me why I never take an eye off of leaving.

Talk on Using Skype in China becoming illegal


27 Comments
  1. We’ll have to wait and see how effectively or thoroughly this is implemented. It could well be that it just prohibits companies from partnering with Skype, or preinstalling it. In which case, users can stick a Skype app in their device on their own, and use it pretty freely.

    But I agree with your last paragraph – it’s reprehensible (and WTO-busting) crap like this which makes you think, “OK, just 1 or 2 more years, then I’m bailing on this place.”

  2. As futile as it seems to be I try to explain to friends at home that China doesn’t care about me accessing these sites on the basis on of content but rather that it is a form of economic warfare and on a battlefield that China is wildly lost on. When it comes to technology and new media China struggles to understand because of the incredibly fast paced manner in which it advances and the amount of creative energy that is necessary to keep up.

    This is why QQ zones look like GeoCites pages and RenRen looks like facebook lite. In order to make up for this a system of handicapping is created in order to leverage the largest group of internet users in the world to keep their presence localized. There is a really terrible article that sort of addresses the same issues on eChinacities but as Ryan puts it “monopolistic greed” is far and away the most influential reason that most the GFW blocks are in place.

  3. I go with Steven on this. All the laowais, and even lots of Chinese, are using Twitter and Facebook from within China even though it’s ‘illegal’. It will be quite doable to either continue using Skype, or use some other kind of Skype-like communication.

    • Profile photo of

      I agree, there’s no question that for the time being, even if Skype was blocked, it would be possible to use with a VPN — just as Twitter/Facebook is accessed now. The problem, and one frequently faced when using a VPN to access Youtube, is that a VPN typically runs a bit slower and while that might not hurt regular audio calls, video calls might be choppy at best. But then they are most of the time for me anyway (without a VPN).

      You’re right though, not much to worry about — Steven’s reposting of Peter Schloss’ comment further down spells that out.

  4. Stuff like this always reminds me of the old puzzle: “There was a small snail at the bottom of a thirty foot well. The snail was only able to climb up three feet during the daytime, and at night slide back down two feet at night while it was asleep. At this pace, how many days will it take the snail to reach the top of the well?”

    Obviously in China’s case there are days when it can climb more than three feet and indeed nights when the snail slides all the way back to the bottom. There are also days when you think that the Zhongnanhai snail is doing its best to go up, whilst various bureaux are simultaneously building the wall of the well higher and dropping bucket loads of salt into the well.

    The simple truth, however, is that the Powers That Be don’t give a monkeys about what we think. That’s why the answer to “You’ve been living in China for years now. Are you going to stay there forever?” will always be “No…”

  5. I’m not sure they could take away our Skype. After all, isn’t it a downloaded program similar in nature to a VPN? It relies on the web, but isn’t actually on the web.

    (Thought it was a little worrisome when Skype went down last week, and a relief to find out it was worldwide and was a Skype server problem, not a ‘Skype in china’ thing!)

    • BEcky – what they are doing (and it is the same with the better VPN sites, is not blocking the service, but blocking the download of the program you need to install the service. I just got a new computer and need to reinstall Skype. The exe download files can be opened, but during the install process fails and is closed down, and redirected to a “Chinese Skype” link offering you an alternative program from there instead. BEWARE – there be gremlins in the “Genuine China Skype” alternative. Of course I didn’t download it, and neither should you.

  6. Just when you think things may be looking up crap like this happens. My bet is that sometime this year there will be a QQ, China Mobile or China Unicom VOIP program to take the place of Skype.

  7. further to my comment earlier today (see #2), I don’t think general users need worry too much about this, though it is a headache for Skype, and indeed for the TOM-Skype joint venture – in the short to medium term. it seems to be more of a licensing – and, indeed, protectionist issue, rather than a Net Nanny one.

    twitter user @peterschloss posted a hugely informative comment over on Digicha on this issue, which I’ll copy and paste in its entirety, here:

    =====

    China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) recently issued a circular declaring that VOIP services other than those offered by State-owned giants China Telecom and China Unicom are illegal. This should come as no surprise as unlicensed VoIP services are strictly forbidden in China under the Chinese Telecom Regulatory regime and have been for many years.

    The Chinese government and the major Chinese telecommunication providers consider VoIP services, whether basic or premium VoIP services, to be a serious threat to the traditional telephony market, and therefore, have put in place a stringent regulatory regime to limit the ability of persons to provide VoIP services. The following is a summary of the regulatory framework:

    Article 7 of the Regulation on Telecommunications of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国电信条例, the “Telecom Regulations”) provides that no one can provide telecommunication services without first obtaining a license from a local telecommunication administration or the information industry authority of the State Council (or the Ministry of Information Industry (the “MII”)).

    The Administrative Measures for Telecommunications Business Operating Licenses (电信业务经营许可证管理办法) (“Telecom License Measures”) further provide that there are two types of telecommunications operating licenses for telecommunication service providers in China (including foreign-invested telecommunications enterprises), namely, licenses for infrastructure telecommunication services and licenses for value-added telecommunication services.

    The licenses for infrastructure telecommunication services are the type of licenses that are possessed by China Telecom, China Netcom (now China Unicom), China Tietong, China Satcom, China Mobile and China Unicom (now China Netcom), telephony, mobile telephony, certain satellite services and VoIP.

    Value-added services licenses permit activities such as the provision of internet content and provision of wireless value-added services such as SMS, MMS and WAP.

    Whereas some value-added telecommunication services licenses can be obtained from the local telecommunication administrations, Article 9 of the Telecom Regulations provides that a license for infrastructure telecommunications can only be obtained from the MII.

    It has been widely reported that MII had on July 18, 2005 sent an internal notice to the local telecommunication administrations and operators emphasizing that only two companies, China Telecom(中国电信)and China Netcom (中国网通), were authorized to conduct trials of PC-Phone business activities utilizing VoIP. See http://it.people.com.cn/GB/106….

    Both Phone to Phone and PC to Phone based VOIP services are clearly and specifically classified under the Categories of Telecommunication Services (电信业务分类目录)) (the “Telecom Categories”) as infrastructure telecommunication services, and accordingly, to engage in Phone to Phone or PC to Phone based VoIP activities, one requires an infrastructure telecommunications license which, as explained above, can only be obtained from the MII..

    The provision of information over the internet is classified under the Telecom Categories as value-added telecommunication services. Accordingly, under the Telecom Regulations and the Telecom License Measures, the provision of information over the internet requires a license for value-added telecommunication services.

    As telecommunications is regarded as a strategic sector in China and the provision and distribution of information over internet in China is sensitive for a variety of reasons, the licensing process and the ability to obtain licenses in these business areas is strictly controlled. It is commonly believed that only six companies in China (four fixed-line operators and the two mobile operators) have been issued infrastructure telecommunication licenses. Furthermore, foreign participation in infrastructure telecommunications and value added services is also limited. Under the Administrative Regulations on Foreign Investment in Telecommunication Enterprises (外商投资电信企业管理规定), foreign parties can only hold up to 49% of the shares in companies licensed to provide infrastructure telecommunication services and up to 50% of the shares in companies licensed to provide value-added telecommunication services.

    According to Article 70 of the Telecom Regulations, persons who engage in unlicensed telecommunication services activities must stop these activities. Additionally, any income derived from unlicensed telecommunication services will be confiscated by the authorities and a fine equal to 3 to 5 times such income will be levied on the provider of the services. If the provider is deemed to be in “severe” violation of the Telecom Regulations, the provider may be required to cease all of its business activities, whether or not such activities require licenses. It should also be noted that I know of no regulation where a differentiation is made between premium VoIP and basic VoIP services.

    Notwithstanding the difficulty to obtain a license for infrastructure services, it is my understanding that companies like Skype can still engage in the provision of certain limited VoIP activities. Although the Telecom Categories clearly classify Phone to Phone and PC to Phone based VoIP services as infrastructure telecommunication services, PC to PC and Phone to PC based VoIP services are not mentioned in the Telecom Categories, nor do any regulations provide that an infrastructure license is needed to engage in PC to PC or Phone to PC based VoIP services. It is still unclear if PC to PC and Phone to PC based VoIP services are infrastructure telecommunication services or value added telecommunication services. However, there are a number of large internet service providers such as Tencent (QQ), Tom.com and MSN who are providing instant messaging services in China and all of their instant messenger tools (“IM”), like TOM-Skype, have the functions and ability to provide basic PC to PC voice services over internet.

  8. I am a Chinese in Japan, if skype would be blocked, I think it is extremely stupid and unreasonable, and it equals a declaration to the world: China is a country with no commercial freedom and getting worse everyday.

    But, nobody can stop them if they did want to do this, I only hope they would at least leave the pc2pc channel alive so I can buy a PC to my parents to keep them in touch.

  9. Was wondering when someone in the P.R. Chinese Blogging Community was going to step up and talk about this openly. This really legit, or another dog and pony show by the powers to be in Beijing, only to be a whack a mole exercise with the GFW?

  10. Ryan wrote, “the news [of the Chinese government banning Skype] certainly has the sheen of classic capitalist monopolistic greed”.

    China’s actions have nothing to do with capitalism, a system that encourages competition among companies to better serve, and thereby keep, their customers. The sheen of capitalism is more and better goods and services at lower cost for more people.

    China’s actions have everything to do with unaccountable government institutions in which bureaucrats increase their and their cronies’ power and wealth at the expense of the helpless little guys.

    Such problems aren’t unique to China, of course. Their appearance increases as a government’s fear of being held accountable by consumers decreases — which means in China these types of problems are endemic. Unfortunately they have becoming more common in the States now that government bureaucrats’ control over the US economy has exploded.

    I appreciate this chance to offer my view. I have learned much from, and enjoyed thoroughly, reading through lostlaowai. Thank you, Ryan.

  11. Granted, this is disheartening news for many Skype users. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect this site to be a paragon of journalistic virtue, but after a few days of reflection I think (and I think you might agree) this piece is a tad sensationalist. Sure the move’s not a great precedent. It’s many things, for whatever that’s worth. But I don’t see why anyone bothers getting in a fuss over it. Google handled their earlier crisis, despite (or in spite of) all the pundits just well enough themselves. Does speaking out against the injustices of big government in defense of a proposed infraction of mere convenience from within those very borders constitute “fighting the good fight” or something? Perhaps? I wish I could see the world in such black-and-white terms. But I just don’t understand what this sort of monologue accomplishes. Because it’s just that: a monologue. No one but the choir is listening. These sort of protectionist measures will always exist; sometimes it will affect many and merit public attention. I suspect more often than not, it will go unnoticed. Nor, I feel that I should add, are such practices confined to these borders. People talk about this so-called “official-oiling guanxi” like it’s something unusual. I astounds me why such notions even exist – China is principally no different than anywhere else, only by relative comparison (as pundits are so sharp to point out) does it stand out here. There is just no effort to conceal it under the guise another motive simply because of that very realization: everybody else does the same thing, while pretending not to. TLDR: Find yourself a VPN provider.

    • Profile photo of

      The “it happens everywhere” argument is worn and tattered, but I’ll repeat the answer I always give to it — we aren’t expats “everywhere else” (at least not at the moment). Nor is this blog about other places. Should Skype become illegal in those places, I trust they have a blogging community to blog about it too.

      Re-reading the post, you’re definitely right though, the news is completely sensationalist. It was written somewhat stream-of-rant, and the line between “pissed off at potential convenience being removed” and “pissed off at it being one more thing being denied to the Internet user in China” is quite blurry.

      Whinging it definitely is; pointless whinging, very likely. But quietly ignoring it would be worse I think. And that’s really the only route to go when put through the filter you’re proposing.

  12. The political issues are all of importance and I don’t disagree with most of the comments above but what the authorities may be missing is that the commercial issues are also very important.

    With Skype I can make low cost calls to my suppliers and, more importantly, have real time discussions about samples, production problems etc with video so that both sides can see exactly what the other one is talking about. If you have ever tried to explain, in words, in two different languages, with the need for more than one person on each side of the conversation, something like the construction or finishing of a needlepoint cushion design then you will soon see why ‘look at this’ using Skype video is faster, easily understood and cuts out lomg emails or only partly understood telephone conversations.

    Given a choice of supplying countries, I would give preference to one where I can Skype my suppliers and quickly sort out minor problems or show them a new product.

  13. Pingback: A guide to using an Android smartphone in China, and how to get paid apps | Lost Laowai China Blog

  14. It was so interesting to see all the comments above. Here’s my two cents: using Skype to communicate is not illegal in China. Nobody will put you in jail for that. However, you need to know how to get around and use it. The official website Skype.com is blocked in China. If you open skype.com link, you will be routed to http://skype.tom.com/. Skype is partnering with tom.com for all their business from China. As an expat, it really sucks. Even though it has English version but the software is localized tom.com version. I don’t trust them. Also, I think you have to recharge them in RMB etc.

    So the best way to do is get a copy of installation file from skype.com before you come to China. Or use a VPN to connect and download from the official skype.com. [portion of comment removed for spamminess]

    Another confusion I saw above, it’s using VPN will slow down the connection. Yes that’s correct. But VPN is only needed to download the skype software, once Skype is installed, you are free to talk/chat/SMS with no need to turn on VPN. Skype communication is encrypted and point-to-point secured.

    Hope this help clear up some confusion.

  15. Just think how much suckier Laowai life in China would be if the government clamped down on piracy too :)

    Here in Dubai Skype is banned, so are bittorrent sites.

      • here’s the logic behind banning skype. first of all, skype is heavily monitored by the nsa, as the triple agent snowden has mentioned. second of all, if skype is allowed to prosper in CHina, this directly affects the Chinese voip business in China. i am sure american, or western regimes will not allow Chinese voip’s into their market, so why should China? for every customer that skype gets, that is one lost customer for a Chinese voip.

        • Profile photo of Ryan

          The problem with what you’re saying (and perhaps this is just the problem of commenting on 2.5-year-old posts) Skype was never banned in China, nor are Chinese VOIP-like services (eg. WeChat/Weixin) banned in the US.

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