Maybe you have already read my overview of the context for such application. I would deliver on my promise and inform you of what happened in the Chinese Telegram group.
Please allow me to introduce myself again, this time, in full detail.
I am Sion Kazama, a loyal user of Telegram since 2016. I have participated in Telegram Chinese Localization Project, Telegram Group Index, Telegram Plantation (Translating news for Telegram). I have managed to translate almost all the articles in Telegram.org, with the aim of delivering the latest information for Chinese users.
After introducing myself, I wish to talk about what happened in China that might concern you. This may take a little while.
As is known to the world, the Chinese government built the Great Fire Wall to hinder our free access to the internet. Because the GFW has been around for such a long time, people have become used to not knowing what really happened. They thus have also become more skeptical of any official announcements made from the government. Instead, what is taken seriously are usually the rumors and gossips. You can probably conceive that “rebel” is a very popular culture. Any news such like “xxx did something for the government”, “the government drove xxx crazy” are always believed by many. It’s quite easy to understand why: In a society full of fear, people would feel “this might happen to me”, thus they are more inclined to believe them.
I do not know if they are true or not. Be it a SWAT personnel beating civilians to death, or the government illegally detaining developers, driving them crazy. I never cared much for such stories, nor did I try to know of them, if any. But fear does exist. You can spot it everywhere in Chinese society, including the Chinese group of Telegram.
A year ago, ads have been spreading out in Chinese Telegram chat groups. These include but not limit to: impostering others, advertising VPS affiliate links and Telegram group links. Flooding message in a group has also become quite serious. To solve these issues, one developer made a public blacklist bot that works similar to Adblock. It would add spammers and imposters to its list. It also blocks the senders of the affiliate links that get posted too often. Once the bot gets added into the group, it would ban the users in the list. The name of this project is CNBlackList.
To be noted: all the banning rules and the black-list are open to public. The source code was also open before the project was shut down. There was also an appeal option to help the people banned by mistake. Nobody is forced to use such bot. But there were some people who did not understand it. They thought they were entitled to send any link they want in the chat, and the blacklist is a violation to their freedom of speech. They said, “How is it fair that we should run into another GFW in Telegram?”
As I talked about before, many Chinese have restricted point of view because of the GFW. They feel like they understand everything. For instance, they thought salt can be divided into organic or inorganic. They thought the Americans are living in hell because there isn’t any good health care system. It’s the same here. They felt like they should be able to do anything they want beyond the GFW[^1] but realized there still are rules standing in their way. So, they started blaming the Blacklist project the same way they were blaming the firewall.
To give you an example, we all know that a recently registered account could be restricted from messaging by Telegram if it was reported spamming even in one group. Someone then had the idea that it was the doing of the developers of the CNBlackList project, and reported them using bots. They also started a rumor that this project is the bridge between Chinese government and Telegram, secretly banning all users who oppose to the government.
This might be hard to understand for someone who doesn’t live in China, but it’s quite normal here. The reason is simple. It’s because fear lives in every corner of the Chinese society.
What happened to this project? Due to the so-called “complaints from the users”, “challenging authorities”, “human flesh searching”, the developer finally had enough of it and shut down the project. He himself has also stopped his other projects related to Telegram.
But, as we all know, the developers can’t do anything themselves. They do not have any authority or power over anybody else. The final call was always made by the group owners, and the blacklist rules and histories are always open. Despite this, he was still targeted as the guy working for the government.
Aside from this, some people have taken the advantage of the restricted information our people have and made a few Telegram apps with backdoor access.
Baidu is one of the largest Chinese internet portal. When people search for Telegram, they usually would go for “the Chinese Reddit”, Baidu Tieba.
However, Baidu Tieba has always been the safe haven for evil deeds. Baidu was involved in multiple cases of selling the positions of moderators on popular “subreddit”. One famous case happened in the Hemophilia “subreddits”, where the moderators without any license were found heavily engaged in prescribing and selling medicines. Such example really tells how loosely regulated Baidu Tieba is. Although there has been no evidence of the Telegram subreddit being sold out, there has been bad people spreading a third-party Telegram app called “BiYong”. It's an app that advertise to work as a blockchain-coin social media. But upon analyses, people discovered that this app would secretly upload users' personal information, such as mobile number, device info, user ID and user activities(e.g. joining groups, etc).
The incentive behind collecting mobile numbers remains to be identified. But according to some threads in Baidu Tieba, it’s likely used to add people to some group in batch without consent. Such service could fetch high prices in black markets.
Note: "拉人" in Chinese means "adding Telegram users to a group in batch without consent".
Although people has been notified of the seriousness of such issue, the app is still maintained by the developers. Its advertisements are all over the Telegram Tieba. Who knows how many are to suffer as a result of this.
Maybe it’s more than that. Privacy protection has never been properly carried out in China. With only your cell phone number, anyone(even civilians) can manage to check when you called for a taxi, when you visited a restaurant, where you go every day. If the “functionality” of such app gets extended even more to include chat logs, things are gonna get even worse.
Have you heard of XCodeGhost incident? It was a back-door application that can only spread in China with its current environment. At present, there is no TSF group in China. The vacuum of an official figure is the best soil for troubles to breed. People can be easily misled by imposters, mistaking wrong for right, even speaking up for them, without knowing what they actually do.
Because of the GFW, our users have been used to believing gossips and rumors. If someone gets the hang of controlling them, the result could be disastrous.
There hasn’t been an official voice for Telegram. If you do not act after reading this, what I said might actually happen. Chinese users could hesitate to communicate with someone who “is using a backdoored app”, and eventually dropping Telegram for good.
I, among many other Chinese developers, know that Telegram has been neglecting the need from Chinese market. Many developers have sent out requests for building a TSF group or incorporating Chinese localization (which already has very polished community version). We don’t know if it’s the resentment for the Chinese government or something else, but these requests seemed never to have reached you. What are we to do?
We joke among ourselves that China is a worse place than Iran and Russia for Telegram. Among all the regions blocking Telegram activities, China has always been treated the worst. You have preached, “Telegram is for everyone who wants fast and reliable messaging and calls.”[^2] I'm afraid this “everyone” doesn’t seem to include any Chinese. Maybe we just don’t deserve to have privacy protection. Maybe our government has every right to peek in what we do every day and everyone should be cool with it.
As I described in my self-introduction, I think you can see that I am very passionate in joining numerous projects involving Telegram and have been rather fruitful thus far. I wish I can help build a Chinese TSF group to amend the current situation. That being said, even if you do not approve me of this request, please do consider the circumstances in China and establish a TSF group to help make it better.
I plea for you to listen to my appeal, because I am haunted by a future where there is no trust among people and no protection of our privacy.
All I need is helping our people from mainland China, Hongkong, Macau, and Taiwan solve their questions through answering, forward issues to the related team with the TSF identity, like what other TSF team do. Just these, no more needed. Do what TSI should do, and the situation can be improved very likely.
[^1]: There is a term of “the US proxy savvy”, meaning someone who used proxies to access public internet and felt like they knew it all after reading through a few NYT, BBC articles. It’s a similar case here.