Recently, the Chinese government started blocking several virtual private networks – commonly known as VPN services. The move has angered free speech activists who used the networks to get around China’s tightly controlled Internet “firewall.”
In some areas, Internet users turn to VPN services to avoid government controls on the Internet. In recent years, VPNs have proven popular in China. People there came to depend on them to visit blocked websites.
There are hundreds of VPN services. In general, they work in the same way. A VPN creates what is called a “tunnel” – a connection between your computer and a set of servers in a different country linked to that VPN service. This “tunnel” enables users to access blocked websites while hiding where they are and their identity.
While VPNs are effective, governments can still block them in two ways. First, governments can block use of the servers linked to a VPN. That is why some VPNs use a continuously moving set of servers across different continents.
Second, the government can simply block the websites of VPN companies, preventing users from downloading a service.
Increased Internet controls
A writer who calls himself “Charlie Smith” says this is not the first time Chinese officials have blocked VPN services. But he wrote in an e-mail to VOA that they have “never done it as extensively as they are doing it now.”
Charlie Smith writes for the GreatFire.org website. He says his group has observed a "rapid ramping up of Internet controls" in China since June of 2014. He says that blocking VPNs is just the next step to increase control.
Charlie Smith wrote that the Google website was blocked completely last June for the first time. He says Gmail was blocked last December. Since last October, he says, the government has “launched attacks on Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Apple, putting sensitive user information at risk and, in turn, making Chinese netizens suspicious of using foreign services.”
Charlie Smith says the attacks on those websites made more people use VPNs and other circumvention tools. But by blocking these tools, he says, “the authorities are leaving people no option but to use domestic services.”
Such services can be easily controlled or closed down entirely.
China’s next moves
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently defended the government’s actions. The South China Morning Post reported what a ministry spokesman told reporters last month.
The official said China has the right to take steps to filter out “inappropriate information” from reaching Internet users through new technologies, such as VPNs.
Internet censorship is nothing new in China. The government began controlling the Internet as early as 1998, with the launch of what has been called “The Great Firewall of China.”
However, the recent government moves have worried some observers. Not only are VPNs being blocked, they say, but more and more website are being blocked long-term.
Michael Auslin works at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He studies Asian politics and security for the group. He says the Chinese government is concerned about guaranteeing political and social control, especially as Internet and social media use is growing quickly. The blog site Sina Weibo has over 500 million users.
Mr. Auslin says, "This is not a time when the government wants to lose control of the national debate. They long ago learned the lesson of the Soviet Union. China wants to maintain political and social control and allow economic reform. That’s the opposite of what the Soviets did, and, of course, they collapsed."
Around the firewall
Some Chinese netizens are still finding ways to get around the government’s firewall. Cloud services like Amazon S3 have become important for many Chinese businesses to earn money.
Charlie Smith of GreatFire.org says blocking these services would cause economic damage to Chinese businesses, and pressure China’s leaders to ease controls on the Internet.
Some experts say China may eventually try to build its own intranet -- a network that works like the Internet but with a limited number of users. A Chinese intranet would block the Internet to all but a small number of people in the country.
Michael Auslin says that while it may happen someday, he does not see an intranet coming to China anytime soon.
"One of the biggest problems is it would be disruptive, and that’s not something the government right now wants," he says. "There’s already an economic slowdown, so the government clearly does not want any economic uncertainty or instability."
Yet Mr. Auslin agrees with Charlie Smith that the blocking of VPN services is an example of China’s attempt to control as much of the Internet as possible. That, he says, shows that officials may be considering creating something similar to an intranet through heavy censorship.
If it would not harm business and the economy, he says, they would “probably go ahead and do it.”
I’m Ashley Thompson.
I'm Jonathan Evans.
VOA correspondent Doug Bernard researched and wrote this story. Staff members wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in this Story
firewall – n. a part of a computer system or network that is designed to block unauthorized access while allowing outward communication.
netizen – n. a person who actively uses the Internet especially in a proper and responsible way
filter – v. to remove (something unwanted)
circumvention – n. avoiding being stopped by something