As we recently reported, China, which already operates the most oppressive online censorship and surveillance scheme in the world, is planning a fresh crackdown on VPN users.
For people and businesses in Taiwan, the only way to access many of the world’s most popular websites, such as Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia, as well as any uncensored news content and countless other sites is via a VPN.
Defending the indefensible
However, China has now reportedly told the countries three main state-owned telecoms firms that they need to block access to VPNs by February next year.
Much criticism has been levied at the Chinese Communist Party for this latest step, despite the fact that it is not exactly without precedent. But interestingly, the Chinese internet regulator, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees their online censorship programme has felt the need to come out and try to defend the proposals yesterday.
Zhang Feng, a spokesperson for the regulator has claimed that it is only unauthorised VPN providers that will be targeted and explained that licensed VPNs will still be available.
“Our restrictions target service providers without licenses or operating illegally,” he said. “Law-abiding individuals and businesses won’t be affected.”
There is currently no such known VPN licensing scheme operating in China and it is not clear how many VPN providers might fall under that definition. It does, however, seem safe to assume that if a VPN is going to be licensed by the Chinese Communist Party, it is almost certainly going to have to comply with their online surveillance regime and therefore make it a VPN that no user should trust.
Equally the use of the term “law abiding” is a worrying one as it is, of course, illegal in China to access content which is censored, which is the reason most VPN users in China have signed up for the service in the first place.
‘Cleaning and standardising’ the internet!
When explaining the reasons behind the proposed ban, Zhang Feng claimed that the move was part of an ongoing campaign aimed at “cleaning and standardising” access to the internet. This is a chilling phrase which fits neatly with China’s bizarre ‘cyber sovereignty’ proposals which claim that every country should have the power to regulate the internet as they see fit.
The reality is that this crackdown on VPNs is part of a concerted campaign by Chinese Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping to control the flow of information in the country. It is the latest in a long line of intrusive online legislation which is intended to give the authorities complete control over what people can see and say online. More such legislation and regulation is likely to follow too.
International businesses ‘jittery’
The potential impact of a ban on VPNs is considerable with academics and overseas businesses operating in China particularly worried about the impact it could have.
This is likely to be the reason why yesterday’s press conference was held, as the grip of power the Chinese Communist Party holds is dependent on China’s continued economic prosperity. The loss of overseas investment would be hugely detrimental to this and it is therefore likely that they are trying to reassure them that they will still be able to access an unrestricted internet.
Zhang Feng stressed that approved corporate VPNs would be unaffected and that multinationals would also be allowed to lease a special circuit from state-owned telecom providers at a cost of $1,000 per month, to provide a direct connection to their overseas operations.
However, as with so-called licensed VPNs, few international businesses are likely to trust their sensitive corporate data to a circuit leased from a state-controlled telecoms company which will almost certainly not be secure.
Many remain jittery and the Communist Party will have to tread carefully in the coming months if it doesn’t want to see a mass exodus.
For individual users, it is advisable to sign up with a reputable VPN provider as soon as possible. Most will make every effort to ensure that their service remains both secure and available in China despite the new crackdown, but having the software installed before February of next year seems a very prudent step to take.