China has intensified efforts to tighten its strong grip on the internet, officially outlawing unauthorized internet connections, including virtual private network (VPN) services, which enable many users there to bypass the country’s infamous “Great Firewall.”
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced in a notice Sunday that all special connections through internet data centers (IDCs), internet service providers (ISPs), content delivery networks (CDNs) and VPNs, operating from within China, are now required to secure prior government approval.
Such operators will have until the end of March to commit in writing to abide by the new regulations and be tested to ensure full compliance before the year’s end. If they are found not to be in compliance, their unregulated operations will be shut down from next year on, the notice added.
Li Yi, a Shanghai-based IT expert, told China’s official Global Times newspaper the new regulations are needed to strike at cross-border crimes and purify cyberspace.
“Some multinational companies in China such as Microsoft Corp. have a reasonable need to communicate with their headquarters overseas via VPNs, but some corporations or individuals browse overseas Internet pages out of illegal motivations. In this regard, the new rules are extremely important,” he said.
Analysts found China’s latest crackdown unsurprising in a country that has imposed some of the strictest internet censorship measures in the world for years. But it is alarming that the control has increased so greatly in the runup to the National People’s Congress in March and the 19th Communist Party Congress in fall, when its top leadership is reshuffled, they said.
Giant Chinese intranet
Charlie Smith, co-founder of Greatfire.org and FreeWeibo.com, said the move helps “push China closer to its vision of internet sovereignty, or a giant Chinese intranet.” But it will also inflict collateral damage, including isolating itself from the global internet.
“The higher authorities are trying to make the large telecom companies responsible for information control via their platforms, with a list of specific things to watch out for. But this is easier said than done,” Smith said in a written reply to VOA.
He called enforcement into question as few companies wish to tend to “the nitty gritty details of how their services are being used by customers.”
“They [telecom companies] will continue to make sure that paperwork is in place, but they will not spend too much time really getting into the details. This is also a huge cost for these companies. They simply cannot afford to conduct checks on every customer,” he said, adding that it will be a step too far for China to cut off access to the global internet with a greater self-imposed threat than free access to information.
Smith’s website estimates that China blocked access to 172 of the world’s top 1,000 websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Users will find ways out
Sharing a similar view, Michael Qiao, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, expressed concerns that the new restrictions will work effectively to keep businesses in line with the government’s online censorship, although he also believed that both businesses and end users will find ways out.
“It mainly serves as a policy initiative, which works to intimidate or send a warning to the sector’s businesses. But such bans in the long run may not work as [information] flows on the internet are simply too massive to control as a whole,” Qiao said.
As counter measures, some domestic businesses may be forced to operate from outside of China, or Chinese netizens may end up signing up for international VPN services in order to access sites blocked by China, the professor added.
As such, Golden Frog is expected to benefit from the windfalls. The self-funded company is one of the three leading international VPN providers in China, which operate outside of China and may not be subject to the new regulations.
“[China] They’re just attracting attention and making people more aware of what is going on, and creating more of a market for VPN services,” Austin, Texas-based Elizabeth Kintzele, vice president of Golden Frog’s sales, told VOA via a phone interview. “And they’re really probably shooting themselves in the foot because if they’re cracking down on their state-type VPN services, the international players will benefit from this,” she said, adding that China-based users take up a large percentage of her company’s sales.
Kintzele argued that, by imposing bans, China is not only missing out on domestic VPN business, but also having a negative impact on China-based multinationals, which need to access, for example, Google to complete deals.
While business activity is unchanged at Golden Frog, Kintzele admits it remains to be seen if China will enact new blocking measures against VPN services operating outside of China, although her company vows to recover as quickly as it can to ensure uncensored access to the internet for its customers in China.
Already, many netizens in China are reacting negatively to China’s planned crackdown on VPN services.
A user on the Baidu forum wrote “such a fake reform will eventually bring about genuine revolution.”
On Sino Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, a user mocks “no one is allowed to eat without prior government approvals,” while another user wrote “controls are everywhere. Don’t know what [the government] is really afraid of.”