Beijing defends crackdown on VPNs, saying there are alternatives for businesses
Foreign companies that fear impact of tightened restrictions are told they can use authorised providers or lease special circuits
The Chinese government on Tuesday defended its crackdown on the use of virtual private network services to bypass its censors, saying the campaign targeted unauthorised services and that licensed VPN providers were still available.
Many people use the tools – which reroute internet traffic to other locations – in mainland China to get around controls so that they can access websites that are blocked by the Communist Party such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and foreign news sites.
Foreign businesses and researchers, in particular, were worried about unfettered internet access when the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in January said that all special cable and VPN services would need government approval.
Zhang Feng, a spokesman for the ministry, told media in Beijing on Tuesday that the crackdown would not affect companies that were connecting to overseas offices using approved VPNs.
It’s unclear how many VPN service providers have been approved by the authorities.
Earlier this month, the ministry shut down a private Chinese VPN provider, Chuang Lian, that claimed it had approval, saying it did not have official authorisation to operate.
A string of VPN providers have been closed recently and video and other content restricted as part of a 14-month campaign to “clean up” the internet.
But Zhang said multinational companies could also lease a special circuit, available from state-owned telecom providers, to provide a direct connection to their overseas operations. The circuits cost more than US$1,000 per month, according to Associated Press.
Last week, users of Facebook’s instant messaging platform Whatsapp were temporarily unable to send photos and video clips. That came shortly after the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, which sent the censors into overdrive.
The restrictions and uncertainty have sent a chill through many foreign businesses in China.
Jake Parker, vice-president of China operations at the US-China Business Council, said companies needed reliable access to the internet to keep their operations running smoothly, and so that they can communicate with overseas offices and clients.
“When we talk to companies, they frequently note the challenges they face as a result of China’s restrictive internet enforcement environment,” Parker said. “VPNs help overcome these challenges, so any disruption in VPN services would have a major impact.”
Rachel Mok, a tech and entrepreneurship writer for the Startup Living China blog, said she and her colleagues would consider leaving the country if they could no longer use VPNs to access sites such as Gmail or Google for their work.
“All of us at Startup Living China feel we cannot survive long term without access to the unfiltered web,” she said. “If such access becomes prohibitively expensive some of us will definitely consider leaving China – which would be very unfortunate.”
Mok said many people needed VPNs to do their jobs in mainland China – from those in digital marketing, who needed to access social media to promote products, developers trying to transfer files into and out of the country, and people working remotely for companies based in China.