To call the Chinese government approach to the internet ‘hands-on’ might just be an understatement. The ‘Great Firewall of China’ is widely reckoned as one of the most wide-reaching examples of internet regulation, with control so great censors censors can now block messages server-side (a feature The Register reported had been used in the wake of Liu Xiaobo). Now, the state is turning its immense digital firepower on to virtual private networks (VPNs), the secure connections which offer users anonymity and obscure their IP address.
The country has long held that accessing banned sites (a mixture of major Western and domestic sites which are classed as ‘seditious’) even by VPN was a crime. The latest decision (set to kick in early next year) is to ban all personal VPNs. At the same time, it will limit corporate access to VPNs, giving state oversight of the connections. The government’s decision is a significant one, both for politics and business.
Amongst the suggestions for the timing and motivation behind the manoeuvre came from reporting on the earlier decision to ban encrypted messaging system WhatsApp – a desire for censors to impress Communist party elites ahead of a major reshuffle. Similar motivations might explain why the Chinese government put pressure on Apple to remove VPN apps from their store earlier in the month. On the other hand, this fits a broad pattern which the internet censors have taken to slowly tighten up restrictions. Whilst often more subtle (essentially denying users access in such a way that it is not clear what they are missing), the loophole which VPNs offer is clearly a significant one.
There are economic implications to the decision as well. VPNs, as a method of secure communications, are a fixture of corporate life. The Chinese government’s coming crackdown may not be targeted at businesses, but it remains unclear what status companies (both domestic and foreign) will have. It appears that the level of security and anonymity offered by the VPN will be essentially traded in for connections heavily policed by the state.
That being said, there is one apparent beneficiary of the artificially limits on accessing foreign websites: China’s own tech industry. Already, giants like Alibaba and JD.com have succeeded in carving out massive e-commerce industries (China providing the largest percentage of online sales this year, overtaking America). Whilst in the long – or even medium – run, we’re likely to see these turn out to be giants with feet of clay, heavier policing on VPNs at least secures their position in the Chinese market against potential outside competition.
That’s not to say that Facebook and other Western websites won’t continue trying to access the Chinese market, as the case of ‘Colorful Balloons’ shows. It’s a ‘stealth app’, essentially a clone of Facebook’s Moments app with the logo sanded off and accessible through WeChat, the primary Chinese messenger service.
Colorful Balloons has not been a rousing success, as Quartz reported – probably both because the team behind it went out of their way to keep it nondescript, and also because Weibo, the primary Chinese social media site, is an entrenched alternative. Still, whether the coming VPN crackdown might encourage other Western tech companies to invest in stealth apps in order to keep a more legal foothold in China remains unclear.
China isn’t the only country to realise the advantages of banning of VPNs of late. Russia’s law against Virtual Private Networks and attempts to hide users’ identities, will come into effect in November. Whilst the Kremlin was quick to deny this would affect law-abiding citizens, the situation presents the same problems for foreign businesses and local residents alike. Whether other heavily policed states, such as Iran, close the loophole of VPNs, is conjecture for now – but it’s hard not to imagine that they are watching.