The Chinese government is cracking down on a key technology that Web surfers use to protect their privacy and get around online censorship, according to Bloomberg News.
Some of the country’s biggest telecom companies — Bloomberg lists state-run China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom — are being instructed to block customers from using virtual private networks, a technology that redirects a person’s Internet traffic through other servers to make it look like they are connected to the Web from someplace else.
For years, Chinese citizens have used VPNs to circumvent the country’s Great Firewall, the colloquial term for blocks and restrictions imposed on the Internet by Beijing in an effort to ensure that only a filtered version of the Web is visible to most of the country. VPNs have allowed tech-savvy Chinese Internet users to access restricted news sites and social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook.
China has periodically clamped down on Internet users’ attempts to evade the Great Firewall. The last such campaign took place in 2016, prompting widespread reports of VPN outages. But the government has intensified its attack on VPNs in recent months. In January, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ruled that all VPNs that did not seek government approval to operate would be deemed illegal. Since then, a slew of VPN providers have been forced to shut down, citing regulatory warnings. Under President Xi Jinping, the VPN crackdown is part of an effort to “clean up” the Chinese Internet and enhance the country’s “cyber sovereignty,” the government has said.
The moves will make it harder for the average Chinese citizen, who may not be tech savvy, to find a way to access the open Internet, said Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert and China scholar at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“Bad,” he said of the implications of the ban. “Getting around [it] will require using VPNs based outside of the mainland or setting up and using [one’s] own VPN servers, additional barriers for the individual user.”
Other analysts say China’s latest move raises the risk of even further action by the government down the road.
“It is clear that the crackdown has intensified,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous co-founder of GreatFire.org, a website that monitors China’s Internet filtering and maintains an app to help Internet users get past the restrictions. “The authorities could take other steps to block our app, which would be extreme, more extreme than this. I didn’t think they would consider doing that before but I would say it is a possibility now.”
Commercial VPNs operate commonly worldwide. Many saw a flurry of interest from U.S. customers in the spring, as a Republican-led rollback of federal privacy protections prompted American Internet users to seek ways to shield their Web browsing activity from their own broadband providers. U.S. Internet providers said that adjusting the privacy protections could help them mine, store and share their customers’ Internet usage history to sell advertising and compete with major online advertisers, such as Google and Facebook.