Chinese users of social media sites provided by Internet giant Tencent have penned an open letter slamming the company for closing down discussion rooms, blocking users' accounts, and preventing them from posting articles, a rights group said on Friday.
The letter, signed by 13 users of Tencent and its chatroom service QQ, hit out at the company for pre-empting government controls on online expression and depriving users of services, some of them paid.
"When it comes to topics related to politics, people's livelihood, corruption, and other social problems, the cute little penguins turn into crazed wolves, closing down chat groups, freezing QQ accounts ... and [arranging] temporary outages ... in wanton violation of our rights and interests," the letter said, in a reference to QQ's penguin logo.
"Since the birth of Tencent QQ, we have been loyal users ... and users help to make Tencent ... plenty of money," the letter said, threatening the company with a lawsuit filed by 1,001 users.
"Tencent should give back a better service in return to the community," said the letter, which was dated Jan. 16 and published online by the Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website late on Thursday.
It said in-house censors at QQ had accused groups trying to discuss anti-corruption efforts of spamming with "mass quantities of politically sensitive material," and had closed online chatroom discussion groups, including paid groups, without giving any reason at all.
"Tencent, we are warning you, call off your spies and unfreeze all illegally frozen accounts and user groups, and provide a reasonable explanation, an apology and compensation for loss [of data]," the letter said.
"If you can not meet the above demands ... we will take legal measures," it said, threatening the company with class action suits in China and in neighboring Hong Kong, where Tencent is listed on the stock market.
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling, whose name headed the list of signatories, said that the group is sick of Tencent's behavior, and that it has been repeatedly denied use of some of QQ's functions.
"Some people are able to run chat rooms of 100, 200, or even 500 people," Tang said. "There is also the ability to share photo files and longer articles, but they have illegally prevented us from using these features."
"They are stopping us from making full use of the service, and they are limiting netizens' freedom of expression," he added.
Guangxi-based activist Zhang Wei said that the group of users interested in discussing such topics have managed in the past by frequent switching between multiple user accounts, but that Tencent's actions have intensified in recent weeks.
"Recently it has been crazy. Within a day of applying for a new account, it gets shut down," Zhang said. "A lot of people are actually in fee-paying groups."
He added that Tencent's customer service helpline is very hard to get through to.
Repeated attempts on Friday to contact Tencent's customer service line resulted in a recorded message, but no employee answered the phone.
Jiangxi-based activist Liu Ping, who has previously tried to run as an independent candidate in local legislature elections, said her discussion space was shut down by Tencent two years ago.
Meanwhile, her microblog account was closed last November while she was held in detention for 20 days during the 18th national congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Liu said that whenever she tries to use QQ to send out pictures considered "sensitive" by the authorities, her home computer begins to function abnormally.
"My Internet connection becomes unreliable," she said. "I guess they are blocking my IP address or something like that."
Zhang said the letter-writers are particularly angry over the arbitrary nature of the closures and restrictions.
"It seems that they just shut it down if they feel like it," he said, adding that a hard copy of the letter had been posted to Tencent founder "Pony" Ma Huateng at the company's Shenzhen headquarters on Thursday.
There is little sign that the Communist Party's new leadership, headed by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, will relax tight controls on domestic media or on what netizens can see and say online.
Earlier this month, journalists at the cutting-edge Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend announced a strike over political censorship, sparking protests outside the paper's headquarters.
Many of those who spoke out online against censorship were detained and questioned by China's state security police, and some have yet to be released, activists said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.