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What does China’s ban on VPNs mean for Internet Users

In early 2017, the Chinese government announced a campaign to “clean up” the internet and as part of the measures, it is targeting VPN services. This technology is a popular solution to bypass the restrictions that prevent people in China from accessing popular international websites and services such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram and Dropbox. Following the orders from Chinese authorities, the state run phone carriers are required to enforce a ban on VPNs for individuals and the companies that operate on the mainland have to obtain a license. While the internet in China has been controlled for quite a long time through a censorship system known as The Great Firewall, with the new regulations the government seeks to strengthen its “cyber sovereignty” even further. To help users to understand how the crackdown on VPNs can affect them, we’ll take a look at the main aspects of the situation of this technology in China.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a service that routes the internet traffic through servers in a different location. You may be in China, but if you connect to a server in the United States, your traffic will be routed through it and your IP address will show as if you were actually in the US. VPNs are used for many businesses to allow employees to connect to the company’s network, even when they are not in the office. However, VPN services are also very popular when it comes to avoiding geographical blocks that prevent people from accessing certain services and websites. In countries where the internet is subject to censorship, VPNs are a convenient solution to bypass the restrictions. They are also widely used to access streaming services that are only available in a specific country.

Why do people use VPNs in China?

As previously mentioned, China has implemented a system that restricts access to certain content. Anything that is considered to be against the interests of the country or the ruling communist party is targeted. This includes social media networks, news websites, email services and other categories. The nation’s web filter, known as the Great Firewall, places limits on the content that can be accessed in China. For instance, there are keywords that are filtered to prevent users from finding information about topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Since Google refused to have its results censored, Google’s services have been banned in China. Using a VPN gives people the chance to get around the blocks.

What websites are blocked by the Great Firewall?

Most popular foreign social media and entertainment websites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest and Instagram are blocked in China. News websites like The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The New York Times have also been banned. In mainland China, all media outlets operate under license from the government and self-censorship is widespread.

Why were VPNs previously allowed?

Some organizations had approval to use VPNs legally, since they are a practical security tool for many companies and employees who travel and need to connect to their work network from anywhere. The government used to take a case by case approach, targeting individual VPN services. However, by now, most VPN services based in China have been removed from the app stores.

What is the new approach to VPN services?

Although in the past, China had taken steps to prevent the use of VPN services (including blocking the websites of some providers), with the new measures, actions are set to be taken faster. With the involvement of the three telecommunications providers: China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile, it can be expected that every mobile user in the country feels the repercussions of the crackdown. Pretty much all internet users in China use services run by the state-run providers. Unless the VPN service is registered with the government, it will not be able to operate legally.

What will be the impact for individuals and companies?

The recent crackdown is primarily aimed at individuals and organizations that are still able to run VPNs or similar services, that don’t have a license from the government. It is still not clear what are the requirements to obtain a license and who is eligible. The problem is that VPNs are mainly used by individuals to be able to bypass the restrictions implemented by the government. As such, it is unlikely that the VPNs that are licensed by the government can fulfill this purpose. It is also not known yet how things will work for employees of companies that are approved to use VPNs to work from home or while they are traveling.

Why are there stricter controls being implemented?

At the beginning of 2017, the President of China, Xi Jinping announced his goal of ensuring China’s cyber sovereignty, meaning a tighter control over its national internet, without foreign influence. The Cybersecurity Law enacted by the government on June 1st 2017, is set to increase the restrictions over cross-border data flows. The law is controversial and it has caused concern not only in China but in a global level. The United States even asked China to reconsider its decision fearing that the law could affect trade.
Experts and Internet freedom activists have expressed concern regarding the implications for online speech, as the law is likely not only intended to regulate business data security, but also to fill any cracks in the Great Firewall to suppress any content that questions the Chinese government.