China Reinforces Great Firewall With New VPN Rules

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Sunday announced the launch of a 14-month national internet “clean-up campaign” on unauthorized internet connections. The move is expected to make the use of domestic virtual private network (VPN) services much more difficult for internet users in China. This comes as the latest of many central government efforts to reinforce China’s infamous “Great Firewall.” While they have become less reliable in recent years, are used by tech savvy-netizens and multinational companies (and even occasionally by Great Firewall architect Fang Binxing himself) to access websites blocked in China. At Reuters, Sijia Jiang reports:

The said in a notice on its website on Sunday that it is launching a nationwide clean-up campaign aimed at internet service provider (ISP), internet data centre (IDC), and content delivery network (CDN) companies.

It ordered checks for companies operating without government licenses or beyond the scope of licenses.

The ministry said it was forbidden to create or rent communication channels, including VPNs, without governmental approval, to run cross-border operations. […] [Source]

This comes after a VPN crackdown last March in Beijing during the National People’s Congress top political meetings. Coverage of the new MIIT campaign from the South China Morning Post puts it into the context of heightening political sensitivities this year ahead of the 19th Party Congress, and notes that some in China are already experiencing lagging or unresponsive VPN connections:

Beijing’s censorship of online information and its control of internet access would be particularly vigilant in 2017 for the once-in-a-decade power reshuffle party congress, analysts said.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the internet and acts as an online censorship office, pledged loyalty to the Communist Party leadership headed by President Xi Jinping on January 5.

Bureau officials issued a statement that said one of their priorities this year would be to cultivate an online environment that was “conducive to a successful 19th party congress”.

Two days ago, two websites run by a liberal think tank, along with 15 other sites, were shut down as control tightens ahead of the party congress.

The latest crackdown has caused a stir on the internet, with many social media users complaining that their VPN services had failed or slowed down. Some expressed fears of losing touch with the outside world or of being held accountable by security ­forces for using a VPN system. [Source]

Coverage from Caixin also notes mounting political sensitivity, and reports that according to a 2015 survey, 29% of internet users in China reported using VPN services. On Twitter, GreatFire.org notes that the new regulations target domestic VPN services and not domestic users, highlighting that foreign VPN providers have long been in government crosshairs. Last year, as VPN reliability was faltering in China, GreatFire launched Circumvention Central, a realtime VPN information database that monitors the speed and stability of leading services.

GreatFire.org’s Charlie Smith further explains in an interview with The Guardian’s Olivia Solon:

Greatfire.org’s Charlie Smith said that the measures predominantly affect domestic players.

“Foreign ones will be largely unaffected unless they offer their customers a China server, in which case they will probably have to register in China or drop the China server,” he said. “Most of them will do the latter.”

Smith is concerned that domestic VPN providers that register with the authorities could share data and information relating to their customers.

“Chinese VPN users know they are accessing information the authorities deem ‘inappropriate’, so potentially they could put themselves in danger if their service provider is working closely with the authorities,” he said. [Source]

The Global Times quotes experts who argue for the necessity of these new regulations, which one believes were long overdue:

It’s necessary for the authorities to roll out such regulations, which are conducive to striking against cross-border crimes and purifying cyber space, said Li Yi, a Shanghai-based independent IT expert.

“Some multinational companies in China such as Microsoft Corp have a reasonable need to communicate with their headquarters overseas via VPNs, but some corporations or individuals browse overseas Internet pages out of illegal motivations. In this regard, the new rules are extremely important,” he told the Global Times on Sunday.

[…] This sector is in an area that should have been regulated a long time ago, Fu Liang, a Beijing-based independent telecom expert, said.

“Domestic laws and regulations on the Internet lagged behind the development of the Internet industry in the past decade. The operation scope of Internet access service providers is blurry, with some companies expanding their businesses to win more clients. Some companies even carry out their businesses without licenses,” he told the Global Times. [Source]

At What’s on Weibo, Manya Koetse surveys Weibo reactions to the new rules:

Reactions on Chinese social media vary, with many netizens making sarcastic comments about the news. “Wouldn’t it just be better to cut off all Internet and shut down further contact with foreign countries?” some say.

Many others also comment: “Without a VPN, how can we now go on Facebook to show our patriotism and love for China?” [See CDT’s coverage of such patriotic displays by China’s “little pinks.”]

But there are also those who are confused on what the new regulations will mean for individuals, and many who are worried as they fear it will widen the gap between China and the rest of the world: “They will first restrict companies, then they will restrict individuals – it goes step by step.”

“Why are we not allowed to browse foreign websites in the first place?” another commenter wonders: “I simply don’t understand.”

[…] Some internet users from Xinjiang are especially concerned. For people from the region of Xinjiang in the northeast of China, home to the majority of Chinese muslims, the control on information flows is extra strict as the area has a history of social unrest. “I am from Xinjiang and I have to use a VPN to access most of my apps, like Xiami Music, Baidu Cloud or the Changba (music) app. Without a VPN, what else is there left to do on my phone?”, one commenter wonders. [Source]

The Washington Post’s Emily Rauhala suggested that the new rules’ potential to further isolate Chinese internet users from the World Wide Web is ironic, coming on the heels of President Xi Jinping’s passionate defense of globalization in Davos last week. Xi warned that protectionism was like “locking oneself in a dark room”:

[…A]s Davos drew to a close, a timely reminder that open borders are not really Xi’s thing: Over the weekend, China announced a new, year-long crackdown on “unauthorized Internet connections.” That means another fortification of the that largely keeps China’s Internet users in a “room” of their own — and hurts U.S. companies along the way.

[…] Lester Ross, a partner at Wilmer Hale’s Beijing office who advises U.S. and Chinese tech companies, said the notice fits squarely with this vision. “Broadly speaking, it is consistent with the emphasis on cyber sovereignty as opposed to international connectivity,” he said.

It is still unclear how, exactly, the new rules will be implemented. Often this type of announcement is deliberately vague. Internet companies in China are already closely regulated and VPNs providers are already subject to crackdowns — including one ahead of political meetings last March.

But experts on China’s Internet said the notice seems to take aim at Chinese companies providing VPN services to individuals in China — and not, say, those helping multinational companies connect with their home office. […] [Source]