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China blocks globally popular privacy feature for cell phones

Computer Screen (Yosomono/Flickr)
March 01, 2018

China, one of the strictest nations when it comes to its citizens’ internet usage, is reportedly taking restrictions even further by attempting to block VPNs – or virtual private networks – completely.

VPNs have been one of the few ways Chinese citizens could bypass the communist nation’s strict internet censorship and access websites overseas. Beijing worries that such content would include news and information critical of the communist government.

As China’s “Great Firewall” continues to grow, its citizens’ interest in the outside world grows with it. The biggest unintended consequence of China’s restrictions has been the thriving VPN industry, which provides users access to sites like Gmail and Facebook.

VPN providers are stationed all around the world with servers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the U.S. Some 90 million internet users in China rely on a VPN, which worries party censors and “thought police.”

The growing problem has caused Beijing to take increased measures in blocking all VPNs to seal off its cyber domain. New regulations on internet access, which were originally drafted last year, are set to go into effect by the end of March. Ahead of the new rules, many companies have made it a point to disassociate themselves with VPNs in China. Tech giant Apple has already removed more than 600 VPN apps from its China App Store.

While these new regulations are intended on censoring citizens, the crackdown has been felt by individuals who are stationed in China temporarily for international government work. Two European embassies in China had their VPN connections cut, which motivated the European Union to issue a complaint with Beijing.

Ferdinand Shaff from the Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business also expressed his concerns on German companies working in China having to adjust to the regulations. He views foreign firms being hit as “a kind of collateral damage that the Chinese authorities are taking in stride.”

“Our firms will have to think twice before sharing any sort of information with the China outlets; and the whole communications process will be changing,” he told the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“It would be possible to set up a leased line,” Schaff argued. “But that could cost you 10,000 euros or more a month,” meaning it was only an option large companies could afford.

However, even with China’s continued efforts, there are still ways the full internet could be accessed. Foreign journalists and scholars, for example, have begun using data roaming services by overseas telecom providers to stay connected. Some firms lease portable Wi-Fi devices that connect to telecom networks with access to the entire web, as well.

So if Beijing does not physically disconnect the nations network from the rest of the internet, citizens may still be able to circumvent censorship.