Internet Controls Tighten Under New Administration

As Internet users in China have reported, scaling the Great Firewall of Internet censorship by using VPNs has become increasingly difficult in recent weeks, with several of the most reliable services being blocked. As the Australian reports:

The Great Firewall – the country’s huge system of internet limits and censorship – now appears to be stepping up targeting of virtual private networks, or VPNs, commonly used to circumvent controls on websites the government considers threatening.

While VPNs let users gain access to sites blocked by the Firewall due to their content or sensitivity – which in China include Facebook and Twitter – they are also vital to firms, enabling secure and encrypted communications.

In the globalised economy companies have flocked to China to try to participate in decades of stunning growth.

But web users are complaining of VPNs being inaccessible or quickly going down once accessed, while speeds have slowed to a crawl.

Authorities have also indicated recently that the use for foreign VPNs is illegal. The New York Times blog reports:

At least three foreign companies — Astrill, WiTopia and StrongVPN — have apologized to customers whose virtual private networks, or VPNs, have been slowed or disabled. VPNs are used to circumvent the Communist government’s firewall. The companies, meanwhile, were suggesting some work-arounds.

The daily newspaper Global Times, affiliated with the Communist Party, acknowledged the firewall had been “upgraded,” but it also warned that foreign providers of VPN services were operating illegally.

China blocks online searches of politically sensitive terms, smothers embarrassing news events, blocks online messages from dissidents and simply deletes any microblog posts that it dislikes.

The firewall also blocks countless Web sites that are openly available to users elsewhere around the world — from pornography sites and commercial come-ons to news reporting, political activism and religious proselytizing. Users on the mainland thus have to use VPNs to reach the banned sites.

The lack of access to VPNs not only affects regular Internet users, but businesses who rely on the technology to communicate with overseas associates and customers and to protect their own information. Apple has recently evaded this issue by installing HTTPS protocol for its App Store. From CNET:

The company seems to have recently turned on the more secure protocol for its App Store. Before that switch, censors in China could block Chinese users from searching for certain types of apps, such as VPN software, according to Greatfire.org, which monitors Chinese Internet censorship.

Searching for such apps would cause the actual connection to reset, meaning users in China couldn’t download them even if they were available in the Chinese App Store.

But now with the more secure HTTPS in place, the Great Firewall of China can no longer interrupt the connection to specific apps. Testing conducted by Greatfire.org and by blog site The Next Web confirmed that apps blocked in China under the standard HTTP protocol are now available when HTTPS is used to access the App Store.

As Jeremy Goldkorn of Danwei has written, all of these recent developments seem to indicate that China’s new leadership has no plans to ease up on Internet controls. Indeed, China Media Project translated an editorial from People’s Daily calling on Internet users to be “law-abiding” online:

An open China requires a civilized and healthy online world governed by rule of law. Everyone, whether supervising government bodies or the masses of internet users, must treasure this platform. Demanding that people all use the correct means to say the correct things is not practical, but they must have a consciousness of the law and take responsibility for their words — this is a must. Because regardless of whether online or offline, this is the foundation on which public order and good habits are built.

Chinese netizens expressed outrage when they discovered that Xinhua, the official news agency, was able to get around the Great Firewall to post on Twitter when it was outlawed for everyone else.

December 23, 2012 4:13 PM
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