The Great Firewall Of China Grows Stronger As China Forces App Stores To Remove VPNs

from the total-information-control dept

Like clockwork, governments eager to censor the internet inevitably shift their gaze toward tools like VPNs used to get around restrictions. We’ve documented rising efforts to ban the tools use in countries like Russia, where VPN providers are being forced out of business for refusing to aid internet censorship. Whether it’s to protect VoIP revenue for state-run telecom monopolies, or to prevent users from tap-dancing around state-mandated filters or other restrictions, VPNs have become the bogeyman du jour for oppressive governments looking to crack down on pesky free speech and open communication.

China’s great firewall is a sterling example of draconian censorship, and since 2012 or so China has been trying to curtail both encryption and VPN use. Earlier this year China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology declared that all VPN providers now needed prior government approval to operate, a move generally seen as the opening salvo of an outright ban. These new restrictions will last until July 2021, impose fines up to $2000 on companies offering unsanctioned VPNs (read: all of them), and feature government warnings sent to users consistently caught using the tools.

But in some areas, the pretense has washed away and VPN usage has been simply banned entirely. And as of July, VPN services began disappearing from both the Android and iOS app stores, with popular VPN providers like Green informing their customers the government has forced them to shut down completely:

“Dear respected Green customers,

We have received notice from the higher authorities. We regret to inform you that Green will cease our service on July 1st, 2017. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.

We will start processing our users? refund request after service stopped (the amount will be calculated based on the remaining days in your plan). If you need a refund, please make sure to submit your refund request by August 31, 2017. We won?t be able to process any refund request submitted after that date. Since the workload of processing the requests, information verification and money transfer would be huge, we won?t be able to set an exact date for the refund. We plan to process the refund soon after August 31, please wait patiently.

Originally, statements made by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology seemed to suggest the country’s VPN ban wouldn’t be fully implemented until March 2018. But these recent reports indicate that the Chinese government has grown tired of the pretense and has expedited its VPN crackdown dramatically. Since around 1-3% of China’s 731 million internet users use tools like VPNs to tap dance around internet filters, even with this crackdown this will be a long, difficult, expensive game of Whack-a-Mole for the Chinese government all the same.

While VPNs are not a panacea for our endlessly eroded privacy rights, they remain an incredibly useful tool for those living under repressive regimes. Most legislative VPN bans are of the “death by a thousand cuts” variety, where lawmakers go out of their way to pretend they’re not trying to kill VPNs, even if the end goal always remains the same: the elimination of any tool that might let citizens peek through the curtain of draconian efforts at information control.

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Comments on “The Great Firewall Of China Grows Stronger As China Forces App Stores To Remove VPNs”

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24 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

China can block foreign VPN providers that do not comply, but cannot fine them. When I used to run a small free VPN, I used to see a lot of Chinese users on at times.

If I were still running it, I would not subject to being fined. Blocked, yes, but not fined.

That is because my servers was in the United States, making me not subject to any prosecution in China.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

OP stated that his VPN was physically located outside of China, therefore all they could do would be to block his VPN within China.

They could impose a fine on him if they wanted to but they would have no way to enforce it.

The only way they could impound his equipment would be if they flew over to the US and seized his servers, which would likely start an international diplomatic incident that I don’t think even China is dumb enough to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The only way they could impound his equipment would be if they flew over to the US and seized his servers, which would likely start an international diplomatic incident that I don’t think even China is dumb enough to do.

The USA can get away with doing just that, Ask Kim Dotcom about how it went down.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Actually no, they didn’t.

The FBI did seize all servers located on US soil but they had to go through diplomatic requests to other countries to get the data from those servers. Notably, Canada refused and as a result, the FBI didn’t get those servers.

Because operating a VPN service is perfectly legal in the US, the US would have zero reason to comply with a request to impound/seize servers based on the request of a foreign country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Because operating a VPN service is perfectly legal in the US, the US would have zero reason to comply with a request to impound/seize servers based on the request of a foreign country.

And because copyright infringement was not a criminal offense in New Zealand at the time Kim’s servers were seized (notwithstanding recent court decisions that took place after said seizures and created a new subset of criminal offense with no prior legal precedent in New Zealand), New Zealand would have zero reason to comply with a request to impound/seize servers based on the request of a foreign country. Oh wait….

A corrected statement is below:

Because the US is not on particularly good terms with China, the US would have zero reason to comply with a request to impound/seize servers based on the request of China.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Not sure where you got that information but it’s not true. New Zealand has copyright law on the books going back to at least 1994 that covers infringement and is also part of several international agreements that would have made it illegal even before that.

For your reading pleasure:
http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1994/0143/latest/DLM345634.html
http://www.copyright.org.nz/basics.php
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_law_of_New_Zealand

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Re:

(I am not a lawyer but this is how I read it) The ruling found that Kim had no criminal liability for “secondary copyright infringement”, basically providing a service that encourages infringement but not actually committing it himself.

I think I see now where you were going with this line of thinking but I’m not sure it applies in this case. From what I understand, the initial seizure was made under the assumption that MegaUpload was in direct violation of criminal copyright infringement (which is illegal in both NZ and the US) and that the purpose of MegaUpload was to facilitate copyright infringement. Whether that was a correct assumption or not is beside the point.

In this case, running a VPN service is well established as a legal business and using a VPN is also a well established legal activity in the US. A request from a foreign country to seize someone’s servers simply because they don’t want them running a VPN is a different case than someone being suspected of criminal activity in both countries.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is a felony for the US government to seize property without due process, and there is a federal law on the books that says that any foreign court ruling that would be illegal under US law is unenforceable inside the borders of the United States.

The proper response to a Chinese court ordering the impounding of a server in the US for offering a service that is completely legal under US law is to point, laugh, and then ignore them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just in China?

And as of July, VPN services began disappearing from both the Android and iOS app stores

Is it just Chinese VPNs disappearing, or foreign ones disappearing for users in China, or app stores removing all VPN products? The article’s unclear; given Canada’s recent global censorship decision, it’s an important distinction.

These new restrictions will last until July 2021, impose fines up to $2000 on companies offering unsanctioned VPNs (read: all of them)

The article specifically says some are officially sanctioned. Probably ones with censorship, i.e., ones people have little reason to use.

Anonymous Coward says:

Either one thing will come along and break this insanity, or every government in the world will attempt or be pressured and likely succeed in exposing their ‘represented’ to this insanity

Ffs, cavemen had more freedoms then this, hell, their house was the god damn planet, untill some cavemen let other cavemen tell the former cavemen what they can and can not do

Yes, we have justly evolved to an age of consent, so long as consent is’nt up against money, power or influence……so in some ways, still cavemen……but a much smaller planet/home…….far smaller then is actually required i strongly suspect……….the ammount of land owned by the wealthy is disportionately higher then the mass land owned by thousands of poor……hows that fair, hows that equal, hows that right

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

What If Businesses Start To Complain?

At some point, all these restrictions to try to suppress dissident activity are going to start impacting the day-to-day operations of perfectly innocuous businesses. What will happen then? China wants to grow its economy, while keeping the minds of its citizens firmly under control. Will the two goals always remain compatible?

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