On Tuesday, Beijing blocked Virtual Private Network access in China. The most affected online services were Facebook, Twitter and Gmail on Apple mobile devices. International experts think the move is well-planned step towards a nationwide intranet and a full ban on the Internet in China.
Global Times, a newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, confirmed early last week that the VPN ban was the work of the authorities. The newspaper also linked the actions with the ongoing internal political battles.
Chinese Internet users use VPNs to dodge Internet censorship in China dubbed the “Great Firewall.” VPNs allow their users to freely access blocked sites by not allowing the Chinese internet police spy on people’s internet traffic. The Chinese internet police is estimated to have nearly 2 million employees and collaborators.
Last Tuesday, popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter were mostly unavailable, while less “dangerous” sites such as NFL.com were also impossible to access. Gmail censorship is now complete, but it is expected to severely affect Chinese businesses that use the service.
By the the Great Firewall’s upgrade, the Chinese government targeted three extremely popular VPNs: Golden Frog, Astrill, and Strong VPN.
Sunday Yokubaitis, Texas-based Golden Frog’s President, said that the latest Internet countermeasures were “more sophisticated than what we’ve seen in the past.”
It is not the first time the Chinese authorities target VPNs. In 2013, there was a massive attack on the services, but their use was allowed for academic and foreign business purposes.
Chinese small- and mid-sized businesses heavily rely on the VPNs to get full access to the Internet, while many are fully dependent on the Gmail service to sustain their businesses.
“Authorities apparently cannot ignore those services as they affect our cyberspace sovereignty. For instance, a shortcut has to be blocked since it could be used for some ulterior purposes although it might affect others who use it in a right way,”
Qin An from the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy told reporters on Thursday.
“Ulterior purposes” may be about political propaganda disrupting the current anti-corruption campaign aimed at “cleansing” domestic political opponents of the regime. The fears are so great and the political struggle so fierce that the Chinese leaders seem to be ready to sacrifice thousands of businesses for the sake of the politics.
China watchers currently think that the country will soon abandon its current black-list strategy of blocking dangerous foreign sites and replace it with a white-list approach, i.e. Internet users would only gain access to approved sites.