Chinese users of the Signal instant messenger knew the good times wouldn’t last long. The app, which is used for encrypted calls, will not be available in mainland China from the morning of March 16, a test by TechCrunch shows. The app’s website has been banned in mainland China since March 15, according to censorship tracking website Greatfire.org.
The signal could not be reached immediately for comment.
The encrypted chat app was one of the few western social networks that could be accessed in China without the use of a virtual private network. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been blocked for a long time. In a sense, a ban is a badge of honor, meaning that a foreign app has reached a sizeable user base in China that is attracting the attention of local authorities.
The signal will continue to be available for download in Apple’s China App Store from March 16. This is an indication that Apple has not received a government order to remove the app, which is gradually gaining ground among China’s tech-savvy, privacy-conscious users. The app has 4.9 out of 5 out of 37,000 ratings in the Chinese App Store.
Android stores in China are operated by a number of third-party Chinese technology companies who generally adhere strictly to local censorship and do not list Signal. Google Play is not available in the country.
The iOS version of Signal has been installed nearly 510,000 times in China to date and has recently crossed 100 million downloads in the Apple App Store and Google Play worldwide, the app analytics company Sensor Tower TechCrunch announced on March 16.
By January, Telegram had about 2.7 million installs in the Chinese App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads for Signal and 9.5 million times for WhatsApp. As with Signal, both Telegram and WhatsApp are still available in the China App Store, although virtual private networks appear to be required for access.
China’s sophisticated Great Firewall has turned many internet users into censorship circumvention experts. App bans are often overlaid, as the clubhouse case shows.
While the drop-in audio app was not found in the Chinese app store, users discovered ways to install it in third-party app stores and freely used it with no tools to combat censorship until the app’s API was blocked. Even after that, users in China realized that they could listen when they entered a chat room through a VPN because the audio technology provider Agora from Clubhouse in China was still available.