China is notorious for blocking internet access to many of the world’s most popular websites, including Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. It’s so bad that internet censorship in China has been humorously called the “Great Firewall.” And just like the historical landmark it was named after, the Great Firewall is being extended bit by bit. Now, according to a report by the South China Morning Post, state-sanctioned censorship is expanding to include special cable and virtual private network (VPN) services.
Most mainland Chinese citizens bypass the government’s ban on the world’s most popular websites using VPNs, but now, doing so could be illegal. This ban on unapproved VPN usage is being called a 14-month-long “clean up” of the nation’s internet connections in preparation for a reshuffle of leadership in China’s congress.
“China’s internet connection service market … has signs of disordered development that require urgent regulation and governance,” according to a notice released Sunday by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The new ruling is effective immediately and would last until March 31, 2018, to “strengthen cyberspace information security management.”
Major VPN services, such as Vypr and Express, are aware of the new situation, with Vypr already working on ways around it. That might be difficult, though, as the government remains vague about how it will implement these new rules, according to The Washington Post.
Though not the first time the country has cracked down on VPNs, this new measure represents a more stringent China when it comes to its citizens’ online privacy and access to information. In a modern, globalized world where access to the internet is considered by many a necessity, China continues to uphold a rather backward stance.
There’s no doubt about how access to the internet — or, more specifically, access to information — can help people form opinions. And, indeed, it has done so in the past. For instance, many believe that the internet and social media played a very important role in the Arab Spring. The recent Syrian crisis is another example. More recently still, information on the internet has helped shape the opinions of many Americans — for better or worse — in the recently concluded elections. Information that comes through the internet is so influential that the proliferation of “fake news” has become an alarming phenomenon, so much so that Facebook was compelled to do something about it.
The internet has become essential to modern life, and there are various efforts to bring access to it to even the most remote parts of the world. The United Nations Human Rights Council has definitively condemned state-sponsored meddling with internet access. Granted, it does take some form of “policing” — usually personal vigilance — to sift through what is and isn’t factual information, but shouldn’t that policing be left to the individual? Besides, it’s doubtful that China is blocking VPNs for the sake of saving its citizens from fake news.
The internet, for all its imperfections, has become an essential avenue for freedom of expression. A state should be concerned with safeguarding the online privacy of its citizens, not curbing their access to this valuable tool of the information age.