LINE is an instant messaging chat application produced by a Japanese subsidiary of Naver, the biggest Internet company in South Korea. It boasts dizzying numbers for a tech company that’s only two and a half years old: over 280 million registered users, quarterly revenue of $130 million, and an estimated market capitalization value of $10 billion. Like its competitors, WhatsApp, WeChat, and KakaoTalk, LINE is seen as the new frontier where Internet users, especially those in Asia and the developing world, will communicate in the future.
Which is why it was unsurprising—though regrettable—when last week the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs published a report detailing how it reverse engineered LINE to reveal that it actively censored messages sent and received by its Chinese users. So whereas non-Chinese LINE users could chat about the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, interviews with Falun Gong founder Li Honglin, or even erotic fan fiction featuring president Xi Jinping’s wife, those in China would receive error messages when sending notes and asterisked-out text when receiving them.
The revelations of LINE’s China-friendly features came alongside reports this month that Bloomberg spiked articles which linked some of China’s richest businessmen with top Communist Party politicians. The New York Times’ sources stated that Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler was concerned about losing access in China—the previous year, an investigative story published by Bloomberg on President Xi Jinping’s family wealth slowed the sale of the company’s lucrative financial computer terminals in the country and caused Bloomberg's site to be blocked in the country. A subsequent Times article revealed that Bloomberg terminals also censored news that might be deemed critical of Chinese politicians or the Chinese Communist Party in an effort to maintain smooth business relationships in China.