WPS Office logo on phone screen showing state censorship on word processor

State Censorship Accused of Reaching Into China’s Cloud-Based Word Processors; Author Claims Access to Document Blocked Due to “Sensitive Content”

Popular cloud-based word processor app WPS, one of the most widely used of its type in China, comes backed with a promise from publisher Kingsoft that it does not “censor, lock or delete” the local files of users. An author in the country claims that this exact thing happened, however, and believes it was tied to state censorship.

The author, who publishes under the name “Mitu,” says that a million-word document she had not shared with anyone else or published anywhere was suddenly locked due to “sensitive content,” and that access to it was disabled even for her. Following publication of the incident on literature forum Lkong and social media platform Xiaohongshu, other internet users in China took to Weibo and other platforms to report that similar incidents had happened to them.

Kingsoft word processor app accused of scanning private documents, removing author access

Though Kingsoft has previously claimed that it never censors or locks user documents in its word processor tool, it also issued a statement in response to the controversy saying that it is obligated to review all the files it hosts to ensure it is in compliance with regulations such as the Cybersecurity Law and the Internet Information Service Management Measures.

The author says that she was able to restore access to her document after contacting technical support at WPS, which responded that the file in question was “not problematic” and made it accessible again in two days. But the issue has since taken on a life of its own as others who use the word processor took to social media to relate their own similar incidents with it, putting a focus on WPS security shortcomings and the potential for state censorship before a document is even made public or shared with co-workers.

WPS documents are not end-to-end encrypted, and government regulations require that companies be able to access the documents they host and turn over their contents upon demand. WPS also notifies users in its privacy policy that it collects information about the content of files when they are uploaded to its servers.

Though concerns naturally center on state censorship, the government appears to thus far be taking the opposite tack and criticizing WPS for the practice. The state-run Southern Daily newspaper covered the incident, calling on WPS to improve the security and reliability of its word processor and indicating the company is in a “trust crisis.”

Part of the state’s criticism may center on the fact that WPS has to date been a “free to use” service that is monetized by running ads in a bar at the top of the screen. Use of information gleaned from user documents to target ads to them could be a violation of the state’s new and strong personal privacy regulations. This would appear to be a key element of the controversy as Kingsoft responded to the social media uproar by adding a setting allowing users to disable these ads, and promising that they would be eliminated entirely by the end of 2023.

State censorship a regular fact of life for China’s cloud-based services

Cloud-based services in China regularly police themselves for illegal information and remove it; state censorship also occurs at times, such as the removal of trends on Weibo that are critical of or problematic for the government. But it is unusual for this sort of censorship to reach into privately hosted documents that have not been shared in any way.

The exact mechanism that triggers the word processor to scan documents for potential state censorship purposes is at the heart of this issue, and Kingsoft thus far will not clarify exactly how this happens. A user comment on Weibo cited by several media sources claims that it is the act of creating a sharing link that triggers an algorithmic scan for certain keywords. However, the experiences of several authors (along with the wording of the WPS privacy policy) indicate that it is possible that documents that are hosted in the word processor’s cloud storage are simply scanned passively at intervals, or are scanned during upload.

Popular Chinese cloud-based word processor app WPS, may be facilitating state #censorship of user’s private documents. User complained million-word document was locked due to ‘sensitive content.’ #surveillance #privacy #respectdataClick to Tweet

User comments on the issue also indicate that state censorship can be levied against even obscure fiction by way of online word processors, rather than just overt political speech that becomes more popular than censors would like. The Chinese government has targeted cultural practices as of late, implementing everything from restrictions on celebrity fan clubs to “boy bands” that feature male performers who take on traditionally feminine elements of appearance. This comes as part of a general campaign of exhortation to reject Western social influences, something that has been used at times to paper over organically developing domestic unrest over a sharply rising cost of living and the amount of work necessary to keep pace.

 

Senior Correspondent at CPO Magazine