China Orders Carriers to Block VPN Access

At Bloomberg News, Christina Larson and Steven Yang report that Beijing has ordered state-run telecommunications carriers to block customers’ access to virtual private networks () by February 1 of next year. The order comes amid a continuing crackdown on the technology used to access websites blocked in China by savvy netizens, multinational companies, and occasionally by Great Firewall architect Fang Binxing himself.

Beijing has ordered state-run telecommunications firms, which include China MobileChina Unicom and China Telecom, to bar people from using VPNs, services that skirt censorship restrictions by routing web traffic abroad, the people said, asking not to be identified talking about private government directives.

The clampdown will shutter one of the main ways in which people both local and foreign still manage to access the global, unfiltered web on a daily basis. China has one of the world’s most restrictive internet regimes, tightly policed by a coterie of government regulators intent on suppressing dissent to preserve social stability. In keeping with President Xi Jinping’s “cyber sovereignty” campaign, the government now appears to be cracking down on loopholes around the Great Firewall, a system that blocks information sources from Twitter and Facebook to news websites such as the New York Times and others.

While VPNs are widely used by businesses and individuals to view banned websites, the technology operates in a legal gray area. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology pledged in January to step up enforcement against unauthorized VPNs, and warned corporations to confine such services to internal use. At least one popular network operator said it had run afoul of the authorities: GreenVPN notified users it would halt service from July 1 after “receiving a notice from regulatory departments.” It didn’t elaborate on the notice. […] [Source]

Read more via CDT about the GreenVPN shutdown and other recent developments in internet control amid Xi’s “cybersovereignty” campaign, including a censored call to ease constraints at top political meetings in Beijing in March. VPNs have in recent years become less reliable in China. The rollout of the ongoing VPN crackdown in January seemed to some analysts to be yet another stability maintenance method amid the acute political sensitivity that regularly accompanies the twice-a-decade leadership transition set to take place later in 2017. The 2018 deadline, however, suggests that the VPN crackdown may outlive the 19th Party Congress meeting this autumn.

At The Washington Post, Brian Fung relays opinions on the developing VPN crackdown from Council on Foreign Relations’ cybersecurity expert Adam Segal, and from GreatFire.org’s Charlie Smith:

“Bad,” [Segal] 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.”

[…] “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.” [Source]

An editorial from the South China Morning Post voices opposition to the VPN order and the perennial crackdown on internet freedom in China, arguing that communications restrictions have detrimental effects on innovation:

China’s censorship of the internet seemingly knows no bounds. A crackdown on virtual private networks, connections that bypass the country’s notorious “Great Firewall”, has intensified, leaving users scrambling to find other ways of viewing overseas content. But while such action is aimed at preventing the circulation of information and opinions that are perceived as damaging to authorities, it also curbs creativity and innovation. That, over time, will be to the nation’s detriment.

[…] Beijing justifies the “Great Firewall” through its concept of “cyber sovereignty”, the right of every country to control its domestic internet space. But censorship stops the flow of ideas and that stifles creativity and innovation. Entrepreneurs know that, as do Chinese who realise what they are being blocked from when they travel overseas. Internet restrictions have to be loosened and removed, not tightened. [Source]

Last week at The Diplomat, Freedom House’s Sarah Cook included this year’s intensifying crackdown on circumvention tools in a list of “new censorship methods” being used by the CCP as they continue to reinforce their control over information and limit dissent. Cook concluded her post warning that the increasingly invasive methods could serve to exacerbate the opposition authorities are seeking to eradicate:

The result of the escalating controls is that there are even fewer avenues for persecuted groups and individuals to defend themselves, offer alternatives to the party line, or expose violence committed by officials. Meanwhile, other Chinese interested in knowing more about these and other censored topics find it increasingly difficult — and risky — to obtain information.

There is also a cost to the CPC. Such aggressive “stability maintenance” methods ultimately increase tensions with key populations, intensify resentment of the party’s heavy-handed rule, and inspire anti-government activism and even violence, including among otherwise apolitical citizens.

From that perspective, while the CPC’s efforts may successfully silence some critics this year, party leaders may face an even more daunting challenge next July. [Source]