A frozen document in China sparks outrage over privacy

A frozen document in China sparks outrage over privacy

HONG KONG—At noon on June 25, aspiring Chinese author Miffy Gu navigated, as she often does, a massive online document that stores the unpublished chapters of her novel series and clicked on it with her mouse.

Instead of opening the file, Miss Gu’s writing software presented her with a warning message: “This document may contain prohibited content. Entry has been suspended.”

“I was terrified,” Ms Gu said. “I wrote over a million words, and now I can’t open it.”

The software in question was WPS, a word processing program that is part of China’s most downloaded suite of domestically produced office applications. Over the next few days, Ms. Gu’s panic turned to anger as she wrestled with the software’s maker, KingSoft Office, to regain control of her work.

He shared his frustrations on a writer’s forum, and others shared their experiences on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform. Her story topped Weibo’s trending topics list on Monday, as users expressed shock and outrage at what she encountered.

“Who wants to constantly watch while writing something?” Read a general comment. “You are an editing tool, not the police.”

In China’s cyberspace, surveillance-assisted censorship is ubiquitous. Human sensors and algorithms rule out any content deemed unwanted or threatening, even when they are part of a private conversation. Ms. Gu’s story, however, suggests surveillance has entered new territory: private writings that may or may not be intended for public consumption.

The controversy provided fresh evidence of a desire among many Chinese to preserve some measure of personal space from the scrutiny of the ruling Communist Party. It also created a crisis of confidence for KingSoft, whose Office software is installed on 570 million desktop computers and mobile devices worldwide, mostly in China.

Kingsoft issued a statement on Monday saying it had restricted third-party access to an online document that violated China’s cyberspace rules. It does not mention Ms Goo’s name or address, which has been locked out of her own records.

In a second statement on Wednesday, Kingsoft pushed back against a misconception, held by many social-media users, that it tampered with files on a user’s hard drive. The company says it is required by Chinese cybersecurity regulations to check and approve documents attached online, and that it uses encryption that protects users’ privacy.

For years, China’s government has outsourced online censorship to the country’s tech companies, setting strict guidelines for content and putting the onus on platforms to ensure their users comply. Companies that fail to police their users face steep fines and are sometimes threatened with closure.

Although battles over censorship often erupt on Chinese social media and entertainment sites, they are far less common in the more unsavory world of productivity software. When WPS topped Weibo’s trending charts this week, a Kingsoft executive who helped develop the program noted in a post on the platform that it was the first time the brand had found itself in such a position.

Kingsoft’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations. China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor who now studies Internet censorship in China from California, said all tech companies that provide consumer cloud storage services in China must censor their content.

In a 2016 pornography crackdown specifically targeting cloud services, Chinese state media reported that tech companies detected thousands of illegal files using both manual checks and automatic detection.

WPS Office was among several Chinese software products that former President Donald Trump sought to ban in an executive order just before he left office in January 2021, saying their data collection capabilities threatened US national security. President Biden rescinded the order a few days later but said the White House was concerned about the risks posed by the products and would continue to evaluate them.

After Mr. Trump signed the order, Kingsoft said it would not have a substantial short-term impact on its business.

Miss Gu, a 25-year-old writer based in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, said she had been writing her urban romance novel for months. He used a variety of writing apps to compose each chapter, which he uploaded to the cloud in a master WPS document that he could access from a variety of devices.

The author says he is always careful to steer clear of politics or graphic details. Her chapters are serialized by Funky Novels, a popular online fiction website so strict about sensitive content that it once asked her to dial up a vivid description of a kiss.

After discovering her WPS file wouldn’t open, Ms. Gu said she contacted Kingsoft’s customer service line. A WPS employee later told him that files are usually locked after the machine detects banned keywords. The worker offered to brief him on China’s cybersecurity regulations, he said, but he declined.

“It was a personal document!” He said, recalling his back with the company. “Who gave me the right to access my privacy?”

Ms Gu said she regained access to the documents three days later. A Kingsoft employee called to apologize, saying the content-scanning machine had made a mistake. She said she was never told what triggered the block in her writing.

After Ms Gu shared her story online, several other writers described similar experiences.

A user of the lifestyle mobile app Xiaohongshu wrote that the crime novel he was working on was often locked by WPS, possibly containing descriptions of blood and dismembered body parts.

A user on the author’s forum said that a document containing a romance novel was locked by WPS for more than a week in February, and speculated that it might be because the story began with a woman engaging her husband in an affair.

While some of the initial social media outrage in response to Ms. Gu’s story stemmed from the misconception that Kingsoft had locked a file stored on the author’s hard drive, many users said they remained unsatisfied even after the company clarified. t case.

“Don’t access our files, can you promise?” One of the most likable responses to the company’s statement on Wednesday was written by a Weibo user and self-described paying customer of WPS. “If not, I’ll unsubscribe.”

write down Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com

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