Skype not blocked in China after all… yet

Last week’s news headlines suggesting that VoIP giant Skype was banned in China was premature, according to a number of sources including The Wall Street Journal and IDG (via PC World).

From the WSJ article:

The recent spate of reports has its roots in a brief notice (in Chinese), dated Dec. 10, on the website of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. “Currently, our ministry is working with relevant departments on launching an effort to strike against illegal VoIP services, and we are collecting clues from the public about illegal VoIP cases,” said the notice, which listed a phone number people can call to report such services. “We welcome people from all walks of life to report clues on illegal VoIP using their real names. Our ministry will do whatever is legally possible to protect the confidentiality of those who report.”

The notice made no mention of Skype, nor of any other company.

According the WSJ blog post, the government is looking at cracking down on VoIP after reports the medium had been used to “swindle” consumers, although there has been no naming of Skype directly from state sources.

Pic: AP.

The blog continues:

The official language around the VoIP crackdown suggests that it could just as well be focused on the small domestic services, which are tough to regulate, as some analysts have suggested. China’s government isn’t afraid of taking on foreign companies, but it also has a history of announcing “crackdowns” that it enforces unevenly.

While Skype and its 51% majority partner TOM is reportedly unaffected, causing media to speculate that initial reports of a block were false.

Three weeks after the initial VoIP crackdown notice, Skype says it hasn’t seen any change. “Users in China currently can access Skype via TOM Online,” a Singapore-based spokeswoman for Skype said last week. A Tom Online marketing official also said that “all operations and user access are normal, and operations in China conform with national regulations.” On Monday, the Skype spokeswoman said, “Nothing has changed.”

The WSJ closes suggested that we “stay tuned” for further developments as things are unclear at this stage.

What is interesting is the relatively low market penetration that Skype has in China as the article reveals:

It claimed more than 88 million registered users at the end of June–although on average only two million connected each month, according to a Skype regulatory filing in the U.S.

It would hardly be a big surprise if China cracked down on VoIP. Concerns about its privacy – ability to be hacked – and obvious threat to phone companies have long be cited in the West as issues, except that unlike China, western countries can do little in response to the threats it brings.

With iPhone’s success, in relative numbers in China, Skype will be no doubt be looking to raise its visibility given it has just announced its much anticipated video call support (for two way calls) on the device.

As WSJ concludes, only time will tell how this pans out…but for now Skype is unrestricted in China.