An initiative to “clean up” China’s internet will make it even harder to jump the Great Firewall

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Crowd-sourced archive.
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China’s Great Firewall just got greater.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which oversees regulation of the internet, published a notice (link in Chinese) on Sunday that points to a possible crackdown on virtual private networks (VPN), the primary tool that internet users in China use to access banned websites and services. While this isn’t the first time (paywall) the government has targeted VPNs, analysts say that this particular notice, by focusing on telecommunications companies, adds a layer of specificity that suggests jumping the firewall will get more difficult.

The document opens stating that China’s internet has trended toward “disorderly development,” and calls for a 14-month initiative to “clean up and regulate the internet access service market” that will last until March 31, 2018.

It then calls on Chinese telecommunications providers to “perform background investigations” on internet data centers, content delivery networks, and internet service providers to ensure that businesses using the internet use it for purposes relevant to their business. What’s catching the attention of Chinese internet users and industry analysts is a single mention of VPNs, which reads (as translated by China Law Translate):

Without approval by the telecommunication management departments, one must not create on his own accord, nor hire dedicated lines (including virtual private networks or VPNs) or other information channels to conduct cross-border business activities. Basic telecommunication enterprises leasing dedicated international lines to users, should create a centralized user archive, and make clear to the users that the terms of use of those lines are limited to internal office use, and that the lines must not be used to connect to domestic or overseas data centers or operations platforms to conduct telecommunication operations business activities.

Analysts believe this suggests that China’s ongoing crackdown on VPN use will continue. According to Lester Ross, managing partner at law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP in Beijing, aside from the eye-catching mention of a “14-month cleanup,” two elements make this notice stand out. First, the notice’s attention toward businesses using the internet confirms that the Chinese government will tolerate VPN use for companies that need it for business purposes, but not for individuals in China looking to access sites the government wants banned.  Second, MIIT says telecoms companies must be responsible for policing VPN use.

“In this case, what they’re doing it is handing it out to the companies themselves, essentially the telco providers, and saying ‘If you allow somebody [to use a VPN] and it turns out they are misusing it, you have the responsibility of taking it away from them or reporting it yourself,” says Ross.

It is not “illegal” to use a VPN in China, nor is it illegal to run a business within China distributing VPN software. Doing so simply requires registering with the government and promising to hand over user data to authorities when necessary. Yet since operators of VPNs likely carry a strong anti-authoritarian streak, many China-based VPNs and proxies are “underground.” Most overseas-based VPNs remain available from within China, though over the past two years access has been patchy.

One operator of a VPN based outside of mainland China told Quartz that while the regulation appears merely reiterative, he’s prepared to ramp up staffing in order to keep the business running.

“This might consolidate the market a bit further, as not every company will able to stay online,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “To stay unblocked in China is an endless rat race.”

Most foreigners will likely feel the effects of a crackdown as telcos take specific measures to make overseas-based VPNs unusable—thereby cutting off access to the most popular tools for accessing sites like Facebook and Google, which otherwise remain blocked. This often happens before major political events, like China’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of World War II in 2015. This year, the country is bracing for the twice-a-decade 19th National Party Congress, during which the nation will watch for signs of an extended term for president Xi Jinping. Crackdowns on VPNs will likely ramp up as this event approaches.