China revamps Great Firewall, cracks down on social media

The Chinese government is rebuilding the country's legendary Internet filter to make access to social media websites and VPNs far more difficult.

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The Chinese government has launched a stronger, smarter censorship wall which is more difficult to scale or circumvent than ever before.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, a recent upgrade to the country's Internet filtering system -- known colloquially as the Great Firewall of China -- has made Internet filtering stricter and tougher to circumvent, providing Chinese officials with more scope to block unwanted material and services.

The upgraded firewall will make the lives of Chinese nationals, expats and businesses more difficult, as accessing blocked websites -- including Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube -- as well as a variety of email services including Gmail is not going to be so easy from now on. For many, these services not only offer a lifeline to keep in contact with friends and family outside of the country, but they also provide key communication outlets for international businesses trying to operate within China.

The Great Firewall has been used to block access to any material which may be critical of the Chinese government. However, in more recent times, Internet filtering is also used to place local tech firms ahead of foreign competition, and give the country's officials an Internet space they can control. At least, to an extent, while VPNs and circumvention exists.

However, this is now also a problematic field. Chinese officials have also begun tackling ways individuals circumvent the firewall -- such as by the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). As reported by the New York Times, Astrill, a popular VPN which many Chinese citizens use to access websites including Facebook and Flickr, is one such target -- and a problematic one for the country's scientists, graphic designers and students.

A senior official confirmed disruption of Astrill's services, among others, and promised that more of the same will come in the future.

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Critics argue that online filtering is not only hampering the general public but is stifling the innovation needed to revive the Chinese economy. However, a senior official at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said the move is designed to foster the "healthy development" of the Internet in the Asian country.

Stringent Internet regulations are not the only concern of individuals and businesses. Earlier this week, the Chinese government introduced new regulations for international businesses seeking to operate in the country. Outlined in a 22-page document, the new rules require technology firms to turn over source code, submit to audits and build back doors in both hardware and software.

Several weeks ago, China cut off access to Google's Gmail service through third-party applications including Apple Mail and Microsoft's Outlook.

Read on: Microsoft Outlook hacked following Gmail block in China

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