China is going after unauthorised internet connections, including tools known as VPNs (virtual private networks) that can bypass China’s efforts to control the web.
The crackdown is part of 14-month campaign from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology that's meant to clean up the country’s internet service provider market
Unless authorised, internet service providers are forbidden from operating any “cross-border” channel business, including VPNs, the ministry said in a Sunday notice.
The announcement is a bit of rarity. The country has usually withheld from openly campaigning against VPN use, even as government censors have intermittently tried to squelch access to them in the past.
However, China has been steadily tightening control over the internet. Earlier this month, the country essentially extended its reach to local app stores operating in the country by forcing them to register with the government.
The action against VPNs will probably be alarming to businesses and local users in China who rely on them to access the internet unfiltered. Sites popular in the West such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have all been blocked in the country due to China’s strict censorship that targets anti-government views.
Sunday’s notice from China’s IT ministry essentially asks that internet backbone providers and ISPs “self-check” to weed out any unauthorised VPN use. But it’s unclear what affect this will have on third-party VPN providers, many of which operate in foreign countries, but also sell to customers in China.
For instance, sites such as SaferVPN, ExpressVPN and VyprVPN sell subscription-based services for around $10 a month or less. Despite China's censorship, these businesses are continually coming up with ways so that customers can access the unfiltered internet.
GreatFire.org, an activist group against China’s censorship, said Sunday's announcement probably has less to do with foreign VPN providers than local ones.
“I think actually that everyone is kind of misreading this info at the moment,” the group said over email. “I do not think that consumers are the ones who will get hit. Businesses who need unfettered access to the internet will suffer if their local provider decides not to provide this.”
Sunday’s notice said that local internet backbone providers in China can still offer private access lines for businesses to link with overseas offices.
However, use of those lines must be restricted for business purposes, and never linked with a data center or used to operate a telecommunication service. The Chinese backbone providers must also collect and establish user profiles for their customers.
In addition to the VPN issue, China’s IT ministry said on Sunday it will be investigating ISPs, internet data centers and content delivery networks for failing to receive the right business permits and operating in areas that exceed the intended scope.