These were some crazy few hours when Bloomberg reported that China planned to ban the use of personal VPNs quoting “people familiar with the matter“. The channel said the ban would take effect in Feb next year. The only problem was that it wasn’t true. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology denied the news as ‘false’.
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Bloomberg: Publishing Unconfirmed News
China is known for its crackdown on internet freedom as most of the internationally popular social networking apps are not accessible in China. However, I think there was a willingness to believe that China would crack down on VPNs when the channel broke the news only on hearsay.
Or Was It True?
Another possibility might be that China wanted to keep the information secret and that Bloomberg story took her by surprise that resulted in immediate rebuttal. Whatever the case, it is clear that everything is not right under the hood. China has a history of banning famous applications and coming up with their own version of those applications.
The potential crackdown can be part of Government’s “cyber sovereignty” agenda, that is focused on controlling the internet and freeing from foreign influence. Currently, many globally popular websites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are already blocked and can’t be accessed by Chinese without using a VPN. Various internet news sources like New York Times, Wall Street Journal or even Google Scholar are blocked, secluding its citizens from the rest of the world. The state also has strict control over all other media in the mainland and an active in-house censorship. Many popular VPN services like GreenVPN, Shadowsocks have already been forcibly shut down and have also disappeared from Apple and Android app stores.
Internet censorship is not new in China and government began controlling access to the internet since 1998 with the launch of popularly known “Great Firewall of China”. As pointed out by Xiao Qiang, a professor focusing on censorship in China at the University of California, Berkeley, there might be a political agenda behind it.
“This is clearly about the highest levels of political struggle and the different factions using the internet as their battlefield. If Xi’s opponents cannot release information inside China because of the censorship apparatus, they do it outside China and then the information filters back” he said. Earlier in 2015, the government has attempted to block VPN access of some mobile users in Xinjiang, a Chinese Northwest province known for being a testing ground for internet censorship. Meanwhile, such attempts have been done on and off by China’s Government, a nationwide crackdown is going to have a radical impact on the internet usage in the mainland.
Previous Ban On VPNs
Earlier in 2015, the government attempted to block VPN access of some mobile users in Xinjiang, a Chinese Northwest province known for being a testing ground for internet censorship. Meanwhile, such attempts have been done on and off by China’s Government, a nationwide crackdown is going to have a radical impact on the internet usage in the mainland.
The rumors of VPN restriction are not only worrying for individual internet users but large organizations, businesses and universities alike. The impact of such a move would be enormous. Such movements can become a hindrance for foreign businesses and can widely impact the otherwise rapidly growing economy of the country.
Why Do They Use VPNs in China?
Academic researchers, software developers, and foreign businesses have been complaining for decades regarding the lack of adequate resources available to them online. That’s why you find them using VPNs to stay connected to the western countries. While the exact scope of the new law is ambiguous, it is already raising concerns among free speech organizations in the country. The question is whether the government will reconsider its cyber sovereignty agenda over the long term impact of such, only time will tell.