China Denies Plan to Block VPNs by February 2018

On Monday, Bloomberg reported that Beijing had instructed state-run telecommunications carriers to block individual customers’ access to virtual private networks (VPNs), a technology used to access websites blocked in China, by February 2018. The report raised alarm that an essential, if increasingly unreliable, portal to the global internet would soon close—a development consistent with Xi Jinping’s steady efforts to reinforce China’s Great Firewall, including the launch in January of a 14-month nationwide campaign to “clean-up” unauthorized internet connections. According to a report from state-affiliated news portal ThePaper.cn, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has challenged Bloomberg’s report, denying that telecoms were ordered to prohibit VPN access. Bloomberg’s Edwin Chan reports on the MIIT response, which cited the January notice to claim that “legitimate” access to the web would not be hindered, and addressed concerns about how the alleged directive could hinder innovation and complicate the operations of multinational companies working in China:

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s existing notice governing the use of virtual private networks, issued January, should not affect activities of local and foreign businesses or users in general, it said in an emailed statement.

“Trade or multinational enterprises, if they require leased lines or other methods to access the internet abroad, can turn to authorized telecommunications entities,” the ministry said in its brief statement. “The (January) notice will not affect normal operations.”

[…] On Wednesday, local media outlet The Paper cited the ministry as saying that it had never issued a notice banning personal to carriers, and that unspecified foreign media reports on that topic were inaccurate. [Source]

HK Focus Media/That’s’ coverage of the MIIT response provides context on recent developments hinting at government aims to limit VPN usage, warning that the services may indeed be in Beijing’s crosshairs:

[…D]on’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. If recent developments are any indication, China might still be working to crack down on VPNs.

In March, for instance, Chongqing authorities announced strict rules stipulating that individual users and companies could be fined up to RMB15,000 if they were caught using a VPN. Some speculated that similar measures could soon be rolled out across the rest of the country.

And late last month, we reported on rumors that VPNs would be removed from Apple and Android’s Chinese app markets by July 1. (However, a search of the term ‘VPN’ on the Chinese Apple Store this evening still pulled up a number of downloads, including Astrill, ExpressVPN and Onekey, indicating talk of VPNs being pulled may have been premature).

While it’s unclear if a VPN ban may ever go into effect, one thing is certain: any move to do so is sure to spook foreign nationals and companies working within China. [Source]

Quartz’ Echo Huang provides further evidence that VPNs could be a primary target in Xi Jinping’s ongoing “cybersovereignty” campaign, and includes quotes from Chinese web-users on how a lack of VPN service would complicate their personal and professional lives:

In late January, the MIIT published a notice (link in Chinese) calling for Chinese telecoms to provide VPN services only for business purposes inside a company. It said the effort would last for 14 months and was meant to “clean up and regulate the internet access service market.”

Although it’s difficult to ferret out individual VPN users, one way telecoms can make it harder is by not providing certain services, such as server access to VPN businesses. Other laws might make it harder for VPN businesses to operate, too.

Last month Beijing enacted the long-gestating Cybersecurity Law, which regulates where companies can store and move data generated in China. The law is part of the government’s effort to restrict cross-border data flow. Apple announced today (July 12) that it is setting up its first data center in China to comply with the law, which requires foreign firms to store data within the country. [Source]

The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe reports on the potentially negative implications a VPN ban could have on research and innovation in China:

[…A]ccess to world knowledge is important for reasons that go well beyond seeking critical commentary on the Chinese government: vital economic data and scientific research exist outside China.

If that becomes much harder to access, it stands to hurt China’s competitiveness and even more unmistakably mark the country as one dedicated to erecting barriers rather than pursuing openness, as its leadership has sought to proclaim in the months since Donald Trump became U.S. President.

“The Chinese concept of globalization is very, very different,” said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of consultancy Gavekal Dragonomics.

“It’s much more restrictive and involves a lot more controls.”

At the same time, China wants its companies, including its Internet giants, to be multinational champions. A hard block on information flow would make that tough and could also interfere with recruiting talented people, including Chinese students who have studied abroad. […] [Source]

At The South China Morning Post, Sarah Zheng quotes analysts on the predictability of an eventual VPN ban, and VPN-users on their distaste for an all-out ban, should it come:

Analysts said the move was unsurprising given Beijing’s internet “clean-up” campaign. But it made it harder for the average person to access VPNs and had a “chilling effect” on those considering using them, the co-founder of online censorship monitor GreatFire, who uses the pseudonym Charlie Smith, said. “The authorities are serious about cracking down on free ­access to information,” he said. “These measures are being rolled out non-stop now.”

It was the “next logical step” for the authorities after a series of measures including crackdowns on live-streaming, Paul Triolo, practice head for geotechnology at Eurasia Group, said. “This has been sort of ratcheting up for a long time,” he said, noting that it did represent a “more systemic and robust effort to crack down”.

[…] One Guangdong resident said he often used VPNs to access Instagram and Facebook, but had recently used them to watch ­videos alleging corruption in China posted by fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui. “If VPNs are banned then I won’t be able to watch them any more,” he said. “Cruel government … not democratic at all.”

In Sichuan, another VPN user said the latest restriction made his “heart ache”. [Source]

At RadiiChina, Jeremiah Jenne offers a hopeful list of reasons why the “nuclear option” of enacting and enforcing a nationwide ban on VPNs is unlikely to come to fruition:

Nuclear options are nuclear for a reason: they come with significant costs, which I’ll list below in increasing order of importance.

— It will be an enormous inconvenience for international residents, visitors, and companies in China who rely on VPNs to do business with the rest of the world. […]

— It might rekindle the controversy over whether China’s Internet protocols represent an unfair trade barrier under WTO rules. […]

[…] — It may not even be technically possible. I’ve talked to a few IT folks here in Beijing who are skeptical about whether the government – even if they wanted to – had the ability to complete cut off access to all VPNs. On the one hand, these people know far more about the technical side than I do. On the other hand, never bet against the Chinese government in overcoming long odds on great leaps of stupidity.

— Finally, banning VPNs cracks a carefully constructed façade: that the way the party manages the Internet is totally normal by global standards. This is somewhat related to the best Internet/worst Internet paradigm Larson wrote about in her MIT Technology Review piece.

[…] Here’s hoping. [Source]