Internet users inside China who count on VPNs and proxies to cloak their location and access Gmail, Facebook, and other services restricted in China are finding it harder to jump the so-called “Great Firewall.”
Four “underground” internet proxies have shut down their operations, following visits from authorities.
News of the crackdown first attracted attention in the West earlier this month when one of the creators of Shadowsocks, an open-source proxy server inside China, announced on GitHub it had removed its code from the site, where it had been stored. In a short goodbye message, one of the developers wrote “Two days ago the police came and told me to stop working on this.” The announcement inspired an outpouring of support from the GitHub community.
Other Chinese proxies shut their services at roughly the same time. The internet watchdog group Greatfire.org writes that GoAgent, reportedly the most popular proxy, disappeared mysteriously from GitHub over the weekend. A proxy known as Hongxing tweeted that its service had been disrupted on August 18 and it would cease to accept new users. Qujing, a partially-open source proxy, issued a message on July 28 telling its users it would cease operations in an effort “to respect [China’s] laws, regulations, and policies.”
VPNs and proxies are not completely taboo in China—they can operate as businesses, provided they obtain a license with the government and hand over user data when asked.
But all of the proxies that disappeared recently are homegrown operations of the “underground” variety—meaning they operate without proper licenses, and in some cases serve as hobby projects rather than genuine commercial endeavors.
Quartz got in touch with one of the founders of the proxies that shut down, who confirmed that the authorities did visit him, and demanded he hand over user data, but declined to give more details regarding his encounter. He adds that this is not the first time that the government has visited the creators behind a VPN or proxy from China.
China has been cracking down on internet accessibility for over a year, though prior to this incident, the government has primarily directed its efforts towards foreign VPNs. Last January, residents in China who relied on services like Astrill or StrongVPN to circumvent the firewall complained of poor connectivity, which the Chinese government admitted to causing.
But the crackdown on the homegrown proxies is arguably more alarming, as authorities are personally targeting the software’s Chinese architects, who have more at stake: The makers of ExpressVPN might have a hard time getting a visa into China, but the entire livelihoods of the underground software makers could now be in jeopardy.
It’s never easy to guess why Chinese authorities choose a particular moment to crack down on internet accessibility. But China is gearing up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of World War Two, a historical event that has a party-approved narrative. Its plummeting economy is drawing global media attention, and it’s facing its most politically-charged man-made catastrophe since the Wenzhou high-speed rail accident in 2011.
The watchdog group Greatfire.org’s psudonymous Charlie Smith says that the crackdown on underground proxies is a logical step following the government’s disruption of VPNs. “I guess a lot of those frustrated users moved to other services and now the authorities are moving to those services,” he tells Quartz via email. “We are likely to see this crackdown on circumvention tools continue until every one of even minor significance is wiped out.”