“Shenanigans” as China Restricts VPN and Other Connections

VPN providers Witopia have blamed “China shenanigans” for severe recent disruptions of its service in China. From Bloomberg:

The company is recommending users to report problems via e-mail instead of its live support service because of an “extraordinary volume from China shenanigans,” according to a Witopia posting on its website today.

Witopia and other providers of virtual private networks, or VPNs, allow subscribers to anonymously surf blocked websites by employing private proxy servers that encrypt data. China has the world’s most censored Internet market, according to Herdict.org, a project of Harvard University that tracks reports of Web outages.

Witopia, located in Reston, Virgina, didn’t immediately return calls and e-mails to its press office. Li Wufeng, chief of the Information Office Internet Affairs Bureau of China’s ruling State Council, said services offered in China must be provided by licensed operators and there have never been any issues involving the access of legitimate VPN services that are used by companies to enhance security.

Interference with VPNs may be part of a broader strategy to establish greater control over network traffic across China’s borders. From Radio Free Asia:

Rumors were rife on the popular chat service QQ this week that China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was stepping up plans to funnel all Web traffic between China and overseas sites through a single route.

In doing so, the government would have the option to “cut off” China’s Internet from the outside world entirely.

Chinese technology analyst Li Li said that while the rumors were probably exaggerated, the government was more likely to be working on ways to limit overseas access to sites it hasn’t approved in advance, however.

“I think these reports probably aren’t correct,” Li said. “What’s more likely is that the government is compiling a ‘whitelist’ of sites.”

Li said the government would also probably limit access to netizens using encrypted connections.

“It’s very likely that they will find a way to cut off access via circumvention tools,” he said.

The possibility of a WTO challenge to China’s censorship regime as an illegal trade barrier continues, for now, to lurk in the background. From BusinessWeek:

Though “the WTO can’t get rid of censorship,” [Hosuk Lee-Makiyama] says, a WTO case could compel China to abandon its worst practices, including the complete blocking of sites without notice or remedy and the lack of transparency on censorship standards. McLaughlin, the former Google executive, has often wondered why Congress hasn’t demanded more from the U.S. directors of Chinese companies listed in America. “This is the one tool we have,” he says, “that is extraordinarily potent.”

The U.S. could pick up the pace soon. Ron Wyden, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on international trade, on Mar. 9 pressed Ron Kirk, the U.S. Trade Representative, to make “binding and enforceable agreements on data flows” a priority. “I believe the Internet will become the biggest shipping lane in the world,” Wyden said. “I am talking about keeping the Internet open. That’s what we haven’t put the focus on.”

Witopia’s Reston, VA location is the focus of occasional suggestions that the company is a CIA front: a “Central Intelligence Agency” is listed at the same address on Manta.com, “the world’s largest online community for promoting and connecting small business”. The address actually belongs to a UPS store providing mailbox services. Arguably, in any case, a question mark hangs over the authenticity of a small business directory listing which describes the agency as a private company based between a Whole Foods Market and a Chicken Out Rotissiere.

March 11, 2011 2:18 PM
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