Skype, the fast-growing internet communications company that belongs to Ebay, has admitted that its partner in China has filtered text messages, defending this compliance with censorship laws as the only way to do business in the country.
In a Financial Times interview, Niklas Zennström, Skype’s chief executive, responded to accusations that the company had censored text messages containing words like “Falun Gong” – a banned movement – and “Dalai Lama”. He said that Tom Online, its joint venture partner in China, was complying with local law.
“Tom had implemented a text filter, which is what everyone else in that market is doing,” said Mr Zennström. “Those are the regulations.”
He claimed that compliance with Chinese censorship was no different from obeying rules governing business in western countries. China, along with the US and Germany, is one of Skype’s three biggest markets in terms of active users of its free telephony service, which routes encrypted calls between computers via the internet.
Entering the controversy that has seen Yahoo, Google and Microsoft heavily criticised for working with China’s censorship rules, Mr Zennström said: “I may like or not like the laws and regulations to operate businesses in the UK or Germany or the US, but if I do business there I choose to comply with those laws and regulations. I can try to lobby to change them, but I need to comply with them. China in that way is not different.”
He insisted that the actions of Tom-Skype had not put users at risk. Yahoo has been lambasted for providing information that helped the Chinese authorities to jail two dissidents.
Referring to the measures taken by the joint venture, Mr Zennström said: “One thing that’s certain is that those things are in no way jeopardising the privacy or the security of any of the users.”
Mr Zennström is known for pioneering disruptive technology. He and Janus Friis, his co-founder at Skype, also created Kazaa, the software that enabled millions of people to share copyrighted music illegally over the internet.
He said Skype, which was launched in 2003 and acquired by Ebay last year, had gained more than 80m users worldwide. “I think it’s good for businesses and people in China to have access not only to Skype but also to services like Google and Yahoo and Ebay.”
Mr Zennström denied he was concerned about the time it was taking for China to permit paid-for calls between computers and conventional telephones, a service Skype offers under the name SkypeOut.
Tom Online, which is controlled by Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong tycoon, said last month that the Chinese government would not allow such services for at least two years.
“We’re not in a great hurry [to launch SkypeOut] there,” Mr Zennström said. “In China it’s still a big challenge to charge for online services. We have a very good dialogue with the Chinese telephone companies and the authorities.”