China’s Latest VPN Crackdown

New regulations restrict use of circumvention technologies, highlight key role of anti-censorship sites like China Digital Times
Fri, 2017-04-07 14:57

Throughout China, internet users have long been forced to rely on circumvention technologies to access blocked websites. Leaping over the Great Firewall is a necessity for Chinese netizens seeking unbiased news coverage, businesses operating in the global marketplace, scholars conducting academic research, and regular Chinese users connecting to worldwide social media platforms, for example.

But for residents of the southwestern city of Chongqing, a new regulation stands to further limit options for unfettered internet access. Chongqing’s roughly 50 million residents learned last week of an order outlawing the use of online circumvention technology, specifically VPNs (virtual private networks). The regulation technically came into effect in July 2016 but was only publicized last week.

Chongqing’s New VPN Regulations Make VPNs Illegal, Punish Users

China has cracked down on VPN use before, especially during politically sensitive times. But what is different and most striking about the Chongqing regulation is the move to punish individual VPN users as opposed to the organizations and companies providing the service.

Under the new rules, any individual caught using circumvention tools will receive a warning and be ordered to log off. Entrepreneurial netizens leaping over the Great Firewall to turn a profit greater than 5,000 yuan ($725 USD) will be hit with a fine of at least 5,000 yuan. China’s repressive media environment has actually created a market for “information smugglers” who gather blocked content, translate it, and redistribute for mainland audiences.

The Chongqing regulation follows a nationwide notice handed down by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in January mandating that all VPN providers be required to obtain government approval in order to operate, rendering nearly all VPNs illegal. This “clean-up” of the internet will run through March 2018.

Internet Shutdowns and More in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Outside China

Users in Chongqing are not the only ones in China facing heightened and specific targeting for their online activities. In December, the regional government of the Xinjiang regional government put in place strict controls to curb the spread of “false information,” threatening shutdowns and fines for both websites and individuals who run afoul of the ambiguously worded guidelines. This crackdown follows up on a 2016 Xinjiang police report which labeled circumvention technologies as “violent” and “terrorist software.”

Internet blockages and outages also occur regularly in Tibet, often coinciding with politically sensitive events. Chinese authorities regularly surveil the personal communications of Tibetans on social media platforms like WeChat, scanning for discussions of topics deemed sensitive. This can end in arrest or detention. Highly targeted digital attacks are also not uncommon, with Tibetan civil society organizations especially at risk of being targeted by sophisticated adversaries.

Even beyond China’s borders, the Great Firewall has had an impact on the internet’s overall security and safety. Platform-specific censorship such as on popular Chinese messaging app WeChat occurs in different ways depending on a user’s location. China in 2015 used for the first time a new offensive censorship weapon known as the Great Cannon which allowed China to launch DDoS attacks on websites like coding platform GitHub and anti-censorship activists GreatFire, in part by hijacking and redirecting the web traffic of unsuspecting visitors to an unrelated web site.

China Digital Times: ‘Resistance Media’

Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times (CDT) knows well the challenges posed by China’s Great Firewall, the role it plays in stifling free speech and online expression, and also the importance of working to counteract its influence. Originally traveling to the United States from China as a physics graduate student, Xiao was moved by the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to shift his focus to human rights issues in China.

With the advent of the internet this ultimately led Xiao to found CDT, an independent and self-described “resistance media” organization which obtains and catalogues leaked internal Chinese censorship directives, shedding light on the Great Firewall’s internal (and human) workings. These censorship instructions tend to follow the spread of sensitive or damaging news reports, such as regarding controversial government programsmedical scandals, and internet censorship itself, for example.

In the below interview with Radio Free Asia, Xiao details how CDT came to be, tracing the evolution of his work from his days studying physics at Notre Dame University to becoming a human rights activist advocating for human rights and free expression in China. The interview, also viewable here, is part of a broader BBG internet freedom project analyzing censorship issues in several countries.

See also:
China VPN blocking
China’s Great Cannon
China’s Rumor Mill
Rumors, Gossip Targets of WeChat Censorship: Citizen Lab Report
WhatsApp Integrates Open Whisper Systems-Developed Encryption Protocol
Internet censorship: a threat to human rights
Censorship on Chinese Video Platforms: New Citizen Lab Report

Projects Mentioned