China cracks down on 'unauthorized' VPNs

The censorship state wants to enforce government control over software which can circumvent China's Great Firewall.

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Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese government has launched a fresh campaign to take down and control censorship-thwarting software including virtual private networks (VPNs) which can be used to break the country's surveillance and blocking lists.

The UK's Snooper's Charter, the US National Security Agency (NSA)'s mass-surveillance activities and countries around the world -- Turkey, China, and Iran, to name a few -- have attempted to monitor and control our digital communication, which sometimes includes blocking Internet access.

While the UK is debating which pornographic activities should be considered "non-conventional" and therefore should be censored, other countries such as China have taken a more direct approach to controlling the web through nationwide blockades and automatic Internet Service Provider (ISP) walls which prevent citizens from accessing specific websites and services.

China is well-known for the "Great Firewall," which monitors Internet traffic flows between China and other countries. If requests for banned content are received, the request is automatically terminated.

This did not seem to be enough, however, as a new tool developed by the country, the "Great Cannon," then attempted to spread this censorship pattern across country borders by launching DDoS attacks against domains which contained material criticising the Chinese regime.

See also: Error 451: The new HTTP code for censorship

Now, according to a notice published by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, a 14-month campaign has been launched to crack down on "unauthorized" web platforms and services which the government does not approve of.

"In recent years, as advances in information technology networks, cloud computing, big data and other applications have flourished, China's Internet network access services market is facing many development opportunities," the notice reads. "However, signs of disorderly development show the urgent need for regulation norms."

In what the Chinese government calls a "clean up" which will "standardize the market order [..] and promote healthy and orderly development," the program will force ISPs, VPN providers, data centers and content delivery networks (CDNs) to gain a license and approval from Chinese officials to operate. It will also become illegal for any business to operate outside of their specific license limitations.

In particular, VPNs are described as "illegal cross-border business issues" which need to be controlled.

"Without the approval of the telecommunications administrations, can not create their own or leased line (including a virtual private network) and other channels to carry out cross-border business activities," the government decrees.

In other words, Chinese regulators want to prevent any kind of VPN service which goes across country borders and connects to any data center or server not hosted in China to carry out "telecommunication business operation activities."

This, in turn, can prevent citizens from using VPNs to mask their IP addresses, cover their online tracks or reroute their traffic through another country in order to access services banned in their home region.

It remains to be seen whether the latest blow to Internet freedoms in the country will eradicate VPN use, or whether this latest attempt at control will simply spawn new ways to circumvent it.

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