The world wide web is without doubt one of the wonders of the modern age. Most of us now take for granted the fact we can buy goods from the other side of the world, watch our favorite TV shows whenever we like, network with friends and family, share our favorite content and even study for that big exam, without even thinking about it. In China things are different. Most users can only access online what the government allows them to.
Now, in the wake of Apple yanking 60 VPNs from its China App Store overnight, rumors are gaining traction that Beijing is to officially ban the only way netizens in the country can tunnel out to the unfettered internet: personal VPNs.
This is what internet regulation on steroids looks like. If the plan succeeds, it would be a tragedy for China and could have far reaching implications for global human rights as the country assumes its mantle as the planet’s pre-eminent superpower.
What happens in China, stays in China
VPNs are a lifeline for Chinese internet users who want access to the internet enjoyed by most people in the West. The country operates the largest and most effective censorship apparatus anywhere in the world, collectively referred to as the Great Firewall. It means that if you live inside the country, you can only access what the government wants you to. Social media, entertainment, pornography and news sites are most highly regulated, with the likes of Twitter, the New York Times, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and many others banned outright.
That’s fine for the majority of China’s billion-plus internet population, who have local alternatives. But for a small proportion of middle class urbanites, VPNs are a godsend. They create a secure tunnel out to the free internet and all the sites banned inside the Great Firewall. It might make for a slower and more unstable connection, but it’s the only way to find out what’s really going on in the world.
VPNs have long existed in a legal grey area in China: officially frowned upon but not outright banned. The government seemed happy to turn a blind eye until very recently.
The crackdown continues
Now “people familiar with the matter” have told Bloomberg that the current government under President Xi Jinping wants to ban personal VPNs from February 2018, when the nation’s three state-run carriers will be instructed to block access. Businesses will be exempt, but it’s increasingly likely that they will be forced to use a state-mandated provider, meaning data and access could be handed over to the authorities at any time.
Although not officially confirmed by the government, the ban would seem to be the logical conclusion of months and years of tightening controls over internet freedom in China under the Xi administration. In January, the Ministry of IT (MIIT) issued a notice calling on local telcos to ensure VPNs were only allowed for business purposes. The 14-month initiative is designed to “clean up and regulate” the market for internet access services. This came on top of the long-mooted 2016 Cybersecurity Law which limits what data multi-national corporations operating in China can send to their overseas locations. Apple has already been forced to plan a new datacentre inside the Great Firewall as a result.
An outright VPN ban is the logical conclusion of the Chinese governments actions over the past 18 months
The truth is that the government has been playing whack-a-mole with VPN providers for years now. Most recently, domestic providers Green VPN and Haibei VPN have been forced to close down, but foreign platforms have so far had the technical ability to evade any restrictions.
So, will this latest news change anything?
When a ban is not a ban
Some VPN providers remain optimistic that they’ll be able to skirt any new attempts to block their use inside China at a telco level, continuing the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities that has been playing out for years. KeepSolid and VyprVPN claim they have the ability to do so, while ExpressVPN and PureVPN said the rumored new rules wouldn’t affect them significantly, according to reports.
Others remain skeptical. Charlie Smith is the founder of anti-censorship non-profit Greatfire.org and a long-time follower of such trends. He told me by email that the latest reports were more than mere rumors.
“If the authorities really want to, they could make sure no VPN works. They are doing this step by step now – getting rid of local unregistered VPNs, removing VPN apps from the app stores, putting pressure on the carriers, etc,” he said.
“If things keep ramping up then I think by mid-2018 VPNs may be unusable in China.”
By mid-2018 unlicensed VPNs may be unusable in China
There are other alternatives. Greatfire.org has championed the idea of “collateral freedom”, whereby content on banned sites is “mirrored”, ie hosted on major cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services and others which are available inside China. These platforms are protected from state snoopers by encryption, meaning the government would have to block access to all of AWS to stop people viewing, say, the New York Times hosted there. At the moment this would be economically unfeasible, as so many Chinese businesses rely on such platforms – but never underestimate the Party’s resolve.
Some reports have suggested that researchers and academics – who need access to the unfettered internet to work effectively – could be hit massively by a VPN ban. If it goes ahead, however, it’s pretty clear to me that the Chinese government would find a way to ensure universities and the like maintain limited connections to the global web. Their work in driving China’s continued economic growth is too important to be jeopardized.
Strong and stable
As for individual users, the arguments for allowing their use of personal VPNs are far less convincing.
Security, social stability and the primacy of the Communist Party are everything in China, and Xi Jinping seems prepared to go to extreme lengths to guarantee them. He’s also gone further than many predecessors in quelling any voices dissenting of him and the Party’s rule. Those voices are usually middle class “elite” urbanites who are well-educated and globally aware, partly thanks to their use of VPNs. Despite their relatively small number they are still viewed with suspicion by the Party, whose only real challenge in nearly 70 years of Chinese rule was the 1989 students uprising, brutally crushed in Tiananmen Square.
Banning personal VPN use is an effective way for the Communist Party to quell dissent from the tech-savvy urban elite.
The former comms chief for Baidu (the Chinese Google) Kaiser Kuo claimed in an impassioned Facebook post that any move to ban personal VPNs could actually backfire.
“The number of people using them in China is really small, but really vocal—and I don’t think they’ll just take this lying down. Will reflect very badly on the Party,” he claimed.
I’m not so sure. The Party is remarkably resilient and Xi has shown himself prepared to go to extreme lengths to maintain “internet sovereignty”; a byword for domestic censorship. It’s notable that one of China’s few allies in this internet sovereignty push is Russia, which also recently approved new legislation banning VPNs and other obfuscation tools like Tor, also under the banner of improving security.
So, why should we care what happens in far-flung countries? VPNs offer users in oppressive states the opportunity to see the world as it really is. Without that clarity, governments and autocracies can distort facts to suit their own agenda and manipulate the populace with even greater ease. That’s a danger to global peace, stability and economic prosperity, especially when the government in question controls a fifth of the world’s population. China’s latest crackdown is also an extreme example of internet regulation, a policy favored by the UK’s Conservative government and in Canberra.
The most recent Tory manifesto called for more state controls on what people can post, share and publish online. We should all look to China and be fearful of where that road can take us.