State Controlled Internet: The Story About VPNs in China

Censorship is closely related to politics. The annual global ranking of Internet freedom clearly illustrates this dependence. States that violate human rights also block undesirable websites or block access to the global network.

Only 13 of the 65 countries analyzed by the Freedom House researchers do not interfere with the information freedom of their citizens. Most of the rest of the world’s Internet users can access blocked websites only via VPN services. Residents of China have hard times with this as the hunt for unlicensed VPNs has recently increased there.

Chronology of restrictions

Back in 2008, YouTube was blocked in China. A year later in 2009, Facebook, Twitter, and all Google services were blocked. In 2014, access to Instagram was blocked. Chinese authorities said that all these websites spread information that is undesirable for Chinese citizens. I think it is not the main reason though.

The Golden Shield project or the Great Chinese Firewall, which filters “dangerous” content using keywords and restricts access to websites based on the local blacklist, has been operating in China since 2003.

Western social networks were not initially included in this list. Therefore, many believe that the mass blockages of 2008–2009 were intended to help the state to combat unrest among the Uygur in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In 2009, unrest was suppressed by force, and information about this was concealed in every way. Neither the media nor the human rights activists could monitor the situation. It is known that Instagram was blocked due to protests in Hong Kong.

Together with the “distributors of inappropriate content” many useful websites were also blocked. Due to the blocking of IP address ranges, websites that interacted with Google stopped working. For example, Google fonts stopped loading. Western online colleges and entertainment websites were also blocked. An interesting fact: you will not be able to access prohibited websites using the Chinese 4G SIM card, even if you connect from another country.

It was then that people realized that the blocking should and could be bypassed. First, there was a proxy boom which helped people communicate with the outside world. But by 2012, the government put an end to this. Then the VPN boom started.

Protectionism and VPN Expansion

Imagine that all tools and services you currently use are blocked. This made Chinese IT companies grow wildly, inventing local analogs of Western services: Youku instead of YouTube, Weibo instead of Twitter, Baidu instead of Google, WeChat instead of instant messengers. These blocks helped China start a successful protectionist policy.

Despite the abundance of Chinese services and applications, many tech-savvy users use local VPNs. These were small and illegal services that were constantly blocked. Everything changed when Western VPN providers came to China in 2014–2015. The government obliged them to obtain a special license or leave the country.

Only public VPNs are legal in Chine. Such local services are licensed by the authorities and can be used by legal entities. Ordinary citizens can also use such a VPN, but for educational or scientific purposes only.

Naturally, China has done everything possible to make the local VPN more accessible than a foreign one. To access VPNs, the user will have to go through official registration, that is, to justify to the state their desire to circumvent the ban and also provide their personal data.

A ridiculous case is widely known: the creator of the Golden Shield, speaking to students, had to use a VPN in order to gain access to the South Korean website. Here you need to understand that using any VPN in China, in general, is not prohibited, but unlicensed service providers can get up to 6 years in prison.

Distinctive features of the Chinese model

The trick of the Chinese Internet control model is that everything is blocked in the open. New site gets blacklisted? This is likely to be officially announced. Everything is regulated by law, so the blocking is reported in advance to the media.

In my experience, the Chinese do not care about blocks. They are not longing for Facebook or Twitter. Most of them do not know any language other than Chinese and are fully comfortable watching Chinese videos on Youku. In addition, Chinese web design traditions and all the logic of building sites are very different from what Europeans are used to.

The main feature of China is that users are always offered an alternative to blocked resources. I do not support blocking but blocks really helped a lot of people in China. Within the last 3–4 years, IT companies that could not compete with foreign services in any way, entered a very big market. The state provides them with various benefits and supports them in every way. China created such a narrow circle of legal VPNs and introduced such controls over the web space that local companies simply had no choice, they had all the conditions for growth. Many Chinese analogs of foreign hosting providers are much better now than those blocked.

But there are also a lot of disadvantages. For example, to run your online project, you must get a special ICP license. Each website should have it. This license allows you to register a domain, connect to the server, and bring your website to the provider networks. This is a long and bureaucratic procedure.

Free Internet

Visiting China, I quickly realized that free Internet is a myth. In fact, a lot of countries have their own firewalls, almost everywhere the network is somehow controlled. If you go online from the Russian server, you get a lot of blocked websites that will be open and available in neighboring Kazakhstan. If you use a Taiwan server, then most online cinemas and torrents will not work, as in China. To feel freer, you need to know a certain set of servers and understand what resources are available in a particular country.

Internet restrictions have already become part of our world. Not only China, but also South Korea, and even Australia control their web space. In South Korea, however, everything is a little different. Websites are not getting blocked there, but specific digital content.

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