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Chinese word processor WPS accused of censorship after author says she was locked out of 1.3 million-character document

Chinese software developer Kingsoft Corp is facing a crisis of trust after being accused of locking a novelist out of her own work written in the word processing software WPS over sensitive content, a practice the company denies.

After trending on social media, the issue has caught the attention of state media and other users have come forward with their own experiences about being locked out of their files.

At the heart of the issue is the WPS cloud platform, which like Microsoft 365 allows users to work with files stored on company servers or locally through desktop programs. The writer, who goes by the pseudonym Mitu, claimed she was unable to access her unpublished 1.3 million-character document either from the cloud or the desktop WPS client, which told her "the file may contain sensitive content and access has been disabled". It could still be opened with other tools, including Microsoft Word and Tencent Docs.

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WPS responded to the controversy in a post on the microblogging platform Weibo on Wednesday saying it "is obliged to review all content distributed through its platform" in accordance with the Cybersecurity Law and the Internet Information Service Management Measures, among other laws. The company also emphasised that it "never censors, locks or deletes users' local files".

The response so far has not tempered criticism, which has grown since Mitu first shared the incident in late June through posts on Lkong, an online literature forum, and the popular lifestyle social platform Xiaohongshu. The incident began trending on Weibo this week after an influencer reposted her words there on Monday. Mitu made her own post there the following day.

In her posts, Mitu said she eventually reported the problem to WPS, which apologised and restored access within two days. The file was not problematic, Mitu said the company told her.

Despite this, the incident has generated heated discussions online about privacy. In its statement, WPS sought to assuage these concerns.

"We take strict encryption and desensitisation measures to protect the security of user information when we review the content," the company said.

Kingsoft is one of China's largest software companies. In addition to WPS, it owns mobile app developer Cheetah Mobile and video game developer Seasun. Photo: Captured from Wiebo alt=Kingsoft is one of China's largest software companies. In addition to WPS, it owns mobile app developer Cheetah Mobile and video game developer Seasun. Photo: Captured from Wiebo>

However, like similar cloud office suites like Google Drive and Microsoft 365, WPS documents are not end-to-end encrypted by default, allowing the company to see the contents of the files. The company's privacy policy notes that when users are logged in and connected to the internet, WPS "collects information about the content and files a user uploads to its servers", which is "necessary to provide appropriate online services".

WPS and Kingsoft did not respond to requests for comment.

In another move since the controversy emerged, WPS announced in a post on WeChat that it would end advertisements in its desktop program by the end of next year. Ads currently show at the top of the program, and WPS said they can now be disabled manually in the software settings.

That announcement also trended on Weibo, where users continued to express anger about the company's practices.

As more people began sharing on social media their own accounts of having files blocked by WPS, state-run newspaper Southern Daily called the incident a "trust crisis" for WPS and urged the company to be responsible.

"If users start to rethink whether WPS is reliable and consider it necessary to turn to more secure products, the situation [for WPS] will be very difficult to change," reads the piece published on Tuesday.

In another example, the state-backed newspaper The Economic Observer talked to a writer in the southern city of Guangzhou going by the pseudonym Liu Hui, who said he had a document of nearly 10,000 words that was blocked on July 1.

Censorship is not unusual for cloud platforms in China, which are strictly monitored for sensitive and illegal content. Baidu Wangpan, the search giant's cloud storage service, often deletes files of pirated books, films and TV shows shared by users. In the case that sparked the controversy for WPS, though, Mitu said her original work had not even been shared with other users online when access was blocked.

The controversy comes amid increasing awareness of data privacy and security issues among Chinese netizens. Beijing has tightened regulations and laws in the past year concerning cybersecurity and data handling practices.

China's Data Security Law took effect in September and the Personal Information Protection Law went into effect two months later. Both laws impose tough penalties for the unauthorised collection, processing, storage and use of data in the country.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.