China has long been locked in a struggle to censor the Internet, but recent actions have show the government is taking its efforts to a whole new level.
Using a virtual private networks (VPN) is a common way to get around China’s “Great Firewall,” as its sophisticated censorship apparatus is known. But on Thursday, Reuters reported that a number of popular VPN services had been blocked, including Golden Frog, StrongVPN and Astrill.
“This week’s attack on VPNs that affected us and other VPN providers is more sophisticated than what we’ve seen in the past,” Golden Frog’s President Sunday Yokubaitis told Reuters.
Percy Alpha from GreatFire.org, an anonymous site that gathers data on blocked sites and searches in China, told Business Insider via email that in 2011 the government was still letting popular VPN usage slide. Now, the crackdown on VPNs is just another toward the government’s ultimate goal — cyber sovereignty.
Alpha said in the past several months, Internet censorship has seen a series of firsts.
“Gmail has never been completely blocked until end of last year. Google has never been completely blocked until June last year. Large scale MITM [man-in-the-middle] attacks has never been used on so many services (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Apple) until October last year,” Alpha listed in the email. “Massive block of products (Line, KakaoTalk, Flickr, Microsoft OneDrive) has never happened so clustered until June last year. EdgeCast is never blocked for a long time until Nov last year; the block caused thousands of website to be blocked. Top commercial VPNs have never been blocked since Jan this year.”
Alpha said they don’t know how long the VPN outage will last, but GreatFire.org believes the recent block is to further crack down on encrypted communication.
“Before, censorship was rarely discussed,” Alpha said. “Now it is justified by state media. The worst is still to come.”
The recent shutdown, which seems to be mainly affecting mobile access, ranges from a simple inconvenience for some to a more serious problem for others. South China Morning Post reported that small to medium-sized foreign firms were hurt by the VPN block.
And that issue could escalate. A complete disruption of all VPN services could drive out foreign companies trying to do business in China, Alpha said.
George Chen, a South China Morning Post columnist and 2014 Yale World Fellow, is concerned about the effect increased censorship will have on international relations, especially in education and academic research.
“Now the wall of online information and communications is too high for young Chinese to climb over to stay connected with the rest of the world,” Chen told BI via email. “And miscommunications and misunderstanding of global politics can easily occur when you only receive one-sided information.”
In a column for SCMP, Chen said by adopting stricter censorship policies, China risks cutting itself off from the rest of the world. He said the government is using VPN blocks to control ideology domestically, and slowly, people are beginning to accept more censorship as a new normal.
“The price that the Chinese government will pay for its ‘closed-internet’ policy might be invisible for the short-term, but will have very deep and negative implications in the very long run,” he said.
Others believe the VPN block isn’t a big deal, and providers will find to circumvent the block soon.
Bill Bishop, an expat who writes the popular Sinocism China Newsletter, is a user of Astrill, one of the VPN providers that recently went out. Bishop said he has purchased several different commercial VPNs to use as back up for these kinds of problems, which have happened in the past.
Bishop said he believes that China is aggressively targeting foreign VPN providers because more domestic citizens are using them for Internet access.
“You have to remember that most of the 600m+ Chinese Internet users don’t care about accessing the blocked sites overseas,” Bishop said in an email. “So while this affects expats and some number of elite, for most people here this is not yet a big deal.”
The question is, will it matter if 600 million Chinese people don’t know what they miss?
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