To bypass censorship rules and other restrictions placed on internet usage, citizens must resort to Virtual Private Network or VPN applications and services in certain countries. Prominent among these nations is the People’s Republic of China, which not only has a long-standing history of online censorship but also an ongoing policy of proactive intervention when new avenues or technologies emerge to enable its citizens to circumvent existing regulations.
The proliferation of VPNs has, therefore, come as something of an unpleasant development for the Chinese government, which has taken steps to restrict their usage. Earlier in 2017, these measures claimed one of their most high-profile victims, when the mighty Apple corporation agreed to remove VPN software and offerings from China’s App Store.
But what are the implications of the crackdown on VPN in China? In this article, we’ll be exploring the issues, and seeking answers to this question.
The Realities of VPN in China – A Difficult Marketplace
The so-called “Great Firewall of China” has been in place for some time now, as authorities there seek to retain their governance over all forms of news and information distribution media, and to regulate the flow of information, contact, and commentary in and out of the People’s Republic. Regulators have adopted strict measures to ensure that the over 750 million internet users of the world’s second-largest economy receive a well-filtered version of what’s out there, and conduct themselves online in a manner consistent with official government policy.
In an environment where financial journalists reporting on the slowing state of Chinese markets have been arrested for lying to “disturb economic order,” even the highest profile foreign organizations have not been exempt from official sanctions. The Google and Facebook websites have both been declared off-limits in the past.
Historically, the Chinese government has clamped down on domestic internet usage every five years, in the run-up to the Communist Party Congress. Prior to its 2017 conference, a number of moves were made to ensure that its proceedings should be “trouble free” – beginning January 22nd, when China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) declared that it would clean up the domestic internet by March 31, 2018.
This was followed on May 2nd with the introduction of new restrictions by the Cyberspace Administration of China, requiring online news platforms to be managed by editorial staff sanctioned by the ruling Communist Party.
In June, a new cyber-security law came into effect, requiring foreign businesses operating in China to store crucial data on local servers. The online video services of three Chinese media sites (Weibo, ACFUN and iFeng.com) were also shut down, along with the Ministry of Culture’s closure of twelve live-streaming mobile apps and the “administrative punishment” of a further 20.
Throughout, Chinese citizens and foreign residents looking to circumvent the more restrictive regulations were able to rely on a range of Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps and services, to gain access to the content and contacts which they were otherwise being denied. But the first signs that even this avenue would soon be closed emerged on July 10th 2017, when Beijing ordered China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom to bar the use of VPN in China by February 1st, 2018.
Apple Pulling Out After Government Crackdown
On July 29th, 2017, several software vendors and service providers reported receiving notifications from Apple, stating that their VPN apps had been pulled from the Chinese version of the App Store. As an explanation for this move, Apple stated that these products violated Chinese law, and that “all major VPN apps for iOS have been removed,” in consequence. This development echoed an incident from earlier in the year, when Apple removed the New York Times app from its China App Store, in response to government attempts at censoring international news sites.
In a statement issued to TechCrunch, Apple cited new conditions laid down by Chinese regulators concerning the approval of VPNs. Specifically:
“Earlier this year China’s MIIT announced that all developers offering VPN’s must obtain a license from the government. We have been required to remove some apps providing VPN in China that do not meet the new regulations. These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”
The Extent of the Damage of Purging VPN in China
The purge of VPNs from the App Store is likely to have a huge effect, as Virtual Private Networks have been the enabling device for China-based individuals wishing to overcome state censorship barriers and access the internet freely. The situation is becoming particularly difficult, as the VPN services offered by hotels and other large venues for use by foreign residents are also being curtailed.
For Apple, the move looks set to affect both their corporate pocketbook and their brand reputation. Despite assertions that acting in accordance with local law is the only viable option for any company looking to do business in a sovereign state, VPN vendors across the board have been expressing outrage and disappointment in Apple’s apparent “capitulation” to the Chinese government.
VPN Alternatives for the User in China
Though gone from China’s App Store, most of the affected VPN applications continue to be available to iOS users outside of China. However, the procedures required for creating an App Store account in a different country remain largely unknown to many users inside China so this “offshore” option may be of limited value.
Users of Android VPN apps may have better luck, as the Google Play Store doesn’t maintain an official presence in China, preferring to sub-contract distribution of its apps to a small group of third-party app stores.
Alternatively, the not-for-profit and democracy advocate group GreatFire.org offers what it calls “censorship-proof” options like its Android VPN FreeBrowser, and other services including a collaboration with The New York Times.
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