The who, what and why in China’s latest VPN crackdown

The new campaign to stamp out ‘unauthorised’ providers is not expected to target individuals directly but could have big implications for companies based on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 12:07am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 12:23am

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a notice earlier this week that all unauthorised virtual private networks will be banned as the ministry rolls out a 14-month campaign to “clean up” and “regulate” internet connection services.

Who will be targeted?

It appears the crackdown will target Chinese businesses and individuals involved in providing unauthorised VPN services. The ministry said late on Tuesday that VPN networks of multinationals approved by Chinese authorities won’t be affected.

China tries to ease fears over impact of VPN crackdown

Individuals using VPNs on their computers or mobile phones will not be targeted directly. “As for VPN users in China, this new regulation doesn’t make using VPN illegal”, the website VPNDada.com said in a statement.

The regulation does not specifically address how the crackdown will affect providers outside China. In practice, Beijing has always tried to block such services that help Chinese internet users bypass the “Great Firewall”. In one infamous case, the US consulate in Shanghai in August last year published a Weibo post seeking “reliable” VPN service providers.

The blocking of overseas VPN services could intensify even though the latest notice did not mention the move specifically.

“It’s certainly possible that they will try to shut down us and move onto government VPNs,” Sunday Yokubaitis, president of the popular Golden Frog VPN service provider that boasts a big Chinese client base, told the South China Morning Post.

What can China do to block VPN services?

China will find it easier to crack down on businesses and individuals based in the country. Local telecoms authorities and operators can stop providing basic services such as access to servers. In extreme cases, the police force can be involved.

As for overseas VPN service providers, China’s censors can block their websites, “ports” and VPN servers, according to VPNDada.com.

In August 2015, a month before Beijing’s grand military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war, the South China Morning Post reported that popular VPN provider Astrill had told users that China “was cracking down on IPSec VPNs using GFW [Great Firewall] auto-learning technique” to make its service unavailable on the mainland.

How long will the crackdown last?

The crackdown campaign has a time frame from now until the end of March, 2018. This does not mean it will stop after that date. It’s thought that during this time, VPN providers in China will either reapply for approval or simply close shop.

China tightens Great Firewall by declaring unauthorised VPN services illegal

At the same time, authorities will keep a close eye on how the rule is carried out. After March 31, 2018 certain penalties may kick in and the campaign will most likely continue with updated policies.

Why now?

Stability is the main theme in China this year as President Xi Jinping prepares for a reshuffle within the top leadership and a smooth transition to his second five-year term. Xi’s calls for “internet sovereignty” have translated into increasingly tight regulations on the nation’s cyberspace, such as introducing a cybersecurity law that requires security reviews of IT support for such sectors as finance, requiring tech giant Apple to remove the app of The New York Times from its Chinese store, and these latest, tightening the screws on VPN services.

What will the impact be?

The new rule will almost certainly disrupt business for Chinese and foreign firms operating in China. But a bigger concern is that China’s control of the internet is hurting its own attractiveness as a business destination.

“The more that your business relies on access to standard global business essentials, like online banking, the more difficult it is to operate from China,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of the co-founder of Greatfire.org, which has monitored China’s online censorship since 2011. “I don’t know how the Chinese leadership thinks that Chinese companies can ‘go global’ with internet connections that only ‘go local’.”