On February 1 next year China may move a step closer to having an intranet, rather than an internet. According to a report in Bloomberg this week, the country’s main telecoms providers have been told to ensure that virtual private networks (VPNs) are blocked by this date. The rumour, based on anonymous sources, will add to the jitters that were first raised by a January directive from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ordering a 14-month clean-up of the “internet access market”.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been advocating “cyber sovereignty” for at least three years and with a political reshuffle coming up his government may be more determined to control the flow of online information.
“No country should pursue cyber hegemony, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or engage in, connive at or support cyber activities that undermine other countries’ national security,” Xi warned, in a keynote address to the World Internet Conference in Zhejiang in 2015.
Virtually all China’s internet users go online via China Mobile, China Unicom or China Telecom. None of the three have commented on the report but it comes only weeks after a popular VPN was shut down. Late last month Green VPN told customers it would cease service on July 1 because it had “received a notice from regulatory departments”. Other VPNs such as Taibei, Netfits and Ponton have also been dropped by domestic app stores, according to local media.
VPNs, or “wall jumping software” as they are known in China, allow people to look at blocked sites such as Google, the New York Times and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
They work by routing requests though a foreign server and sending the search results back into China in an encrypted format. The government’s filter for the web – otherwise known as the Great Firewall – can’t block the information because it can’t see exactly what it is.
Most Chinese don’t use VPNs but those that do often rely on them for their work. Even Google Scholar, a searchable database of academic papers and journals is blocked by the Great Firewall, and Luo Fuhe, the vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference complained in March that heavy-handed censorship was hampering the country’s economic and scientific progress. “Some foreign university sites take more than half an hour to load,” he lamented.
At a similar time the southwestern city of Chongqing was rolling out new rules regarding VPNs which require companies and institutions to get permission to use the software. “Illegal’ use of a VPN is punishable by a fine of up to Rmb15,000 ($2,221) and confiscation of the material secured by use of the software.
The January directive from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology insisted that no VPN could be established or leased without the approval of the “competent telecommunications department”. It added that telecoms companies should “set up files on the users” and that “international lines” should only be used for work-related searches.
There has been speculation that outspoken New York-based tycoon Guo Wengui is part of the reason for the clampdown. In recent months Guo has taken to Twitter and YouTube (both blocked sites) to criticise a number of China’s political leaders.
Needless to say, netizens are worried about their VPNs being cut off. “And overnight we are right back to the Qing Dynasty,” wrote one, a former subscriber of Green.
Foreign residents, many of them experts in their fields, have also taken to Twitter to say they will leave China if they can only use a curated version of the internet.
However, on Tuesday, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology denied issuing a directive to ban VPNs. Legitimate entities would still be allowed to “rent” a “cross border” line, it said, and “normal operation will not be affected”. It added that it was looking into how to make VPNs available to qualified users, and it denied rumours that a local company, Chuanglian VPN, had been given a licence to operate under the new rules. But netizens may still have cause to worry about the February 1 deadline. That’s because it is unclear what the ministry will deem to be a ‘legitimate entity’, suggesting many could still see their VPNs disconnected.
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