What you need to know about China’s VPN crackdown

Under watch.
Under watch.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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China seems to be sticking to its self-imposed schedule for making it harder for Chinese citizens to connect to the unfiltered web.

Beijing has ordered three state-owned telecoms—China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom, which together dominate the Chinese Internet access market—to bar individuals from using VPNs, or virtual private networks, starting next February, Bloomberg reported Monday (July 10), citing unidentified sources.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), China’s top internet regulation body, on July 12 said it hasn’t issued such an order, according to news site the Paper (link in Chinese). None of the big three telecoms responded to Quartz’s request for comment.

The use of VPNs has been a frequent government target in the country as it allows Chinese citizens to climb over the “Great Firewall” and access blocked foreign sites like YouTube, Facebook, and the New York Times, and to see content that the ruling Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want seen. The Bloomberg report follows a series of regulations earlier this year as part of China’s efforts to accelerate the tightening control over its internet.

Cracking down

In late January, the MIIT published a notice (link in Chinese) calling for Chinese telecoms to provide VPN services only for business purposes inside a company. It said the effort would last for 14 months and was meant to “clean up and regulate the internet access service market.”

Although it’s difficult to ferret out individual VPN users, one way telecoms can make it harder is by not providing certain services, such as server access to VPN businesses. Other laws might make it harder for VPN businesses to operate, too.

Last month Beijing enacted the long-gestating Cybersecurity Law, which regulates where companies can store and move data generated in China. The law is part of the government’s effort to restrict cross-border data flow. Apple announced today (July 12) that it is setting up its first data center in China to comply with the law, which requires foreign firms to store data within the country.

At the local level, too, provinces and cities are taking new steps to stop VPN use. In March, the city of Chongqing published a notice that specified fines of as much as 15,000 yuan ($2,210) against individuals and organizations for establishing or using channels (link in Chinese) to connect to international networks. Although the notice did not specify VPNs, users of VPNs were targeted, reported state media Global Times.

Some still fighting

On July 1, the popular service GreenVPN ceased operations in China. In an earlier note (link in Chinese) in June, the company said it had received a notice from authorities, without elaborating on the details. Another service, Haibei VPN, cited the same reason before it was taken down. Many others have been removed from app stores in the past few months.

A VPN works by “tunneling” your internet traffic onto a private network before sending it out onto the public internet. It is not illegal to use a VPN in China, nor is it to run a business within China distributing VPN software. But running such a business requires registering with the government and promising to hand over user data (links in Chinese) to authorities when necessary.

ExpressVPN, which is based in the British Virgin Islands and has been operating for eight years, described Beijing’s latest order as part of “a continual game of cat-and-mouse” since it comes “in the absence of any official statements.” Other VPN providers—among them New York-based KeepSolid and Switzerland-based VyprVPN—argue they have the technology to route traffic so as to avoid detection by telecoms.

A headache for Chinese netizens

“I won’t survive without a VPN,” says 24-year-old Klara Xu, who works in a Shanghai-based media company. Searching on Google for information-gathering is part of her daily job. Last August she paid around 600 yuan ($88) for a full-year subscription to ExpressVPN. But now she is hesitating because of the recent VPN shutdowns. “Should I get a half-year subscription, or a full-year one?” she wonders.

“How often do I use VPN? I would count it by the second,” says 24-year-old Calvin Cheng, who works at a Beijing-based publication. Cheng has two VPN apps: Lantern for his Windows computer and Super VPN for his Mac. He uses these not only for work, but also for entertainment, such as watching music clips on YouTube. Previously Cheng paid 72 yuan ($11) for a half-year subscription for a domestic VPN service, which was taken down in June.

“I can survive without a VPN, but it will be hard to make progress for personal growth,” says Cheng, “since we are limited to domestic information.”

Visen Liu contributed reporting.