Blog Post

Skype & the Cost of Playing in China

If you’ve ever seen a Mafia movie, you know that playing nice with the mob is like having the tiger by the tail. It is no different for companies who do business in China, whether on their own or through partnerships. The latest one to experience the downside of this is eBay’s Skype, which has been taking some flack for privacy breaches in the region. 

Citizen Lab, an Internet research group at the University of Toronto, released a report that shows text messages of Chinese Skype users were monitored and their messages blocked if they included political words such as the Chinese Communist Party, the Falun Gong, Tibet, and the great milk scandal.  As a quick background, Skype and TOM teamed up in 2004 and in 2005 released a special software version, TOM-Skype. Since then Chinese users — some 69 million of them — have become a major part, roughly 20 percent, of Skype’s total install base of 338 million.

The report got so much attention that last evening Skype decided to respond. In a blog post, Josh Silverman (Check out my interview with Josh) tries to defend Skype and downplay its role in the China fracas. Here is my translation of the sanitized message he wrote:

  •  This is a TOM Online problem, since they distribute Skype in China.
  • TOM has to play ball and do what the Chinese government asks its to do. (aka regulations that include monitoring and blocking instant messages that the government doesn’t like.).
  • Grow up, censorship is part of life in China.
  •  Hey, don’t blame us. “In April 2006, Skype publicly disclosed that TOM operated a text filter that blocked certain words in chat messages.”
  • This is a China-only problem. On the rest of the Skype network, none of this security breaches and blocking happens — or at least that we know of.

Our challenge is to bring this valuable service to people all over, including China, while being transparent to our users and staying within the boundaries of the local laws. We are committed to meet this challenge.

  • China is so big and important to our installed base that’d we rather not tick off folks there.

As I said, this is what happens when you’re married to the mob. Seriously guys, these compromises are routine and will likely be commonplace. For for-profit entities (despite their slogans), China is a big, growth market and the promise of millions in future profits keeps them from making the right decisions for their shareholders. Sad, but true!

Related link: The Security Breach Report.

12 Responses to “Skype & the Cost of Playing in China”

  1. can you explain what is safe and secure about the dual login without notification feature ? can you explain why skype account are immediately active without any further external authentication. nothing safe about that my friend…

    anybody can be anybody over and over on the skype user cloud. no wonder you have 350 million users, it’s probably a bit less than 350 users, but more like 350 million accounts created by the same users over and over.

    also explain how skype cooperates with other countries to comply with local laws and regulations on the matter of wiretapping… it should be made clear by skype to all skype users that skype conversations can easily by tapped and monitored.

    if so send me the transcript of my five latest private adn secure chats :)

  2. @tsx – just to clarify, the issues highlighted in the Citizen Lab report affect only the TOM-Skype software distributed by TOM in China. Standard versions of Skype are unaffected, and Skype-to-Skype conversations (voice, video, chat, file transfers) between users of standard versions of Skype remain completely secure and private.

  3. @Marshall

    I think you are right about the “self respect” issue and I don’t think anyone really cares. They are all happy doing what is right for the wallet. I wouldn’t expect them to do any different.

  4. Marshall Kirkpatrick

    I missed the part of the official response that said “we’re not happy about this, we don’t think it’s right.” I guess you don’t say that about the mob though, huh? Good analogy. Wonder how the self-respect holds up in situations like this.

  5. I dislike the idea of spying, but if China does it then it is a loss of privacy and evil. If the USA does it, then it is fighting terrorism. How about closing the borders and forget spying on loyal citizens?

    Anyways they all do it


  6. And you really think that Skype has no backdoor that allow (some) government entities to spy conversations or messages ? Especially as there are very few (if any) complaints from law enforcement agencies …

    e.g. Skype president is quoted saying Skype “cooperates fully with all lawful requests from relevant authorities.”. They also say they did not receive any subpoena or court order … but nothing about “security letters”