China’s VPN crackdown a bad sign for online freedom, analysts say

Beijing’s recent clampdown on virtual private networks, used to get around internet restrictions, is mostly a political measure aimed at Chinese citizens, not foreigners, experts say 

Beijing (dpa) – China is upgrading its internet controls, known collectively as the “Great Firewall,” as its population is estimated to have reached 1.3 billion, around half of whom use the net.

Experts say the government is concerned that more Chinese are accessing blocked sites via virtual private network (VPN) services, which make it appear as though the user is connected to the internet from another location or country.

Popular VPN provider Astrill warned users on Saturday that “due to increased censorship this year,” iPhone and iPad VPN services had been temporarily halted in mainland China.

“Our fight with Chinese censors is not over,” read a company statement to users, citing Apple’s slow release of apps as part of the cause for the delay. Providers Golden Frog and VPN Tech Runo also reported similar issues this month.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said the disruptions to VPN services are because China is in the process of “upgrading” the Great Firewall, citing the need to protect its “cyberspace sovereignty.”

Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the clampdown is “consistent with the escalating assault on civil liberties in China that has been ongoing since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, which included tightened control and censorship over the internet and increased detentions of activists and press censorship.”

“A major pillar of this campaign is increased emphasis on ideological control and the supremacy of the Party, as well as growing attacks on ‘Western values’ including press freedom and democracy,” Wang told dpa.

In China, VPNs are popular among the population of a quarter of a million foreign expatriates, who use VPNs to access more than 2,700 blocked websites including Gmail, Google, Picasa and social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

But use of VPN services is much less widespread among Chinese nationals.

A 2010 study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University estimated that only 3 per cent of Internet users in countries that engage in substantial censorship such as China use tools to circumvent controls.

Chinese citizens who are more likely to use tools such as VPNs include activists, academics and those who had lived abroad and want to access sites such as Facebook upon their return to China.

Estimates of the number of active Twitter users in mainland China range from fewer than 20,000 to over 40,000.

But within that group are prominent activists such as artist Ai Wei Wei, dissident Hu Jia, who is currently under house arrest in Beijing, and Tsering Woeser, an outspoken Tibetan activist and writer.

“I think there are now enough Chinese people using VPNs that it has become a source of concern to the authorities,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei, a Beijing-based company that monitors Chinese media.

“Twitter has provided Chinese legal activists with new ways of disseminating their messages… broadening the scope of legal activism, both conceptually and geographically,” said a report from the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Experts say leading VPN companies will be able to withstand waves of Chinese government crackdowns.

“The Chinese government wants to block all VPN access but it simply can’t,” said Fu King-wa, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

“Perhaps now a new technology or new upgrade is available to the government for such a purpose but I don’t think it can block all VPNs forever,” said Fu.

Chinese authorities earlier blocked access to numerous Google services ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June.

Websites not available in China also include websites of several human rights organizations, as well as some media such as the New York Times and financial news agency Bloomberg.

The number of mainland Chinese internet users grew to 648 million at the end of 2014, up 16 million from June, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

Related: “Chinese internet officials defend private networks crackdown”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s