LINE Kowtows to Censorship in China?

To seize a shot in the lucrative Chinese market, will bowing down to China’s rules make or break the ambitious app LINE?

Striving to challenge global competitors, this Japanese smartphone app took a crack at China, launching last December as LianWo. As censorship wraps its tight grip on China’s mobile messaging giant WeChat, LINE had a distinct advantage: a non-censored alternative for Chinese users. Its prospects gave WeChat a serious run for its money.

But inevitably, the complex political landscape of China is not one to overlook. It has recently been uncovered that LINE is ready to filter out conversations of politically sensitive words. It looks like the app’s growing prevalence has China knocking on LINE’s backdoor to play by its rules. If LINE is adamant about succeeding as a communication giant, winning involves capturing the most membership – and the China market is prime. However, through operating inside China’s censorship parameters, it will relinquish its advantage against WeChat. In other words, this possible censorship plan puts LINE in quite the ironic position of becoming a victim of its own success.

So the game will soon change for LINE and it will no longer hold its trump card. As the heat intensifies, it is interesting to see what new foothold LINE can leverage in the messaging app battleground of China. LINE did establish itself in Japan through a sticker-stuffed strategy, a popular selection of “rich human emoticon expressions” that takes a playful approach at communication. But cute can only travel so far before the Chinese government restricts the Japanese social app from becoming a prominent player.

Adding fuel to the fire, an issue of copyright recently came under speculation for WeChat: who owns the content posted? The fine print of the user agreement ambiguously implies that the intellectual property rights of all content posted on the platform belongs to Tencent Holdings (owns WeChat). It is very much vaguely worded and Tencent has yet to provide a clear response. But this discovery can manifest as a huge setback for WeChat, rivalling its fantastic growth in China so far.

In light of the two discoveries, it seems like censorship and content ownership will duke it out. Which messaging monster do you think will prevail?