Thu, Sep 14, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Tighter Web controls jolt companies, scientists

The latest crackdown on VPN use in China threatens to hamper not only the free flow of information, but also entrepreneurs’ ability to do business online with the rest of the world

By Joe McDonald  /  AP, BEIJING

Illustration: Mountain People

Frank Chen’s e-commerce business has nothing to do with politics, but he worries it might be sunk by the Chinese Communist Party’s latest effort to control what the Chinese public sees online.

Chen’s 25-employee company sells clothes and appliances to Americans and Europeans through platforms including Facebook, one of thousands of Web sites blocked by China’s Web filters. Chen reaches it using a virtual private network (VPN), but that window might be closing after Beijing launched a campaign in January to stamp out use of VPNs to evade its so-called “Great Firewall.”

“Our entire business might be paralyzed,” Chen said by telephone from the western city of Chengdu.

Still, “national policy deserves a positive response and we fully support it,” he added later in a text message.

The crackdown threatens to disrupt work and study for millions of Chinese entrepreneurs, scientists and students who rely on Web sites they can see only with a VPN. The technology, developed to create secure, encrypted links between computers, allows Chinese Web users to see a blocked site by hiding the address from government filters.

Chinese astronomers and physicists use services such as Google Scholar and Dropbox, accessible only via VPN, to share research and stay in touch with foreign colleagues.

Merchants use Facebook and other blocked social media to find customers. Students look for material in subjects from history to film editing on YouTube and other blocked sites.

POLITICAL CONTROL

Control over information is especially sensitive ahead of October’s twice-a-decade ruling party congress, at which Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is expected to be named to a second five-year term as leader.

The VPN crackdown is part of a campaign to tighten political control that activists have said is the most severe since the 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.

Dozens of activists and lawyers have been detained. A cybersecurity law that took effect in June tightens control on online data. Regulators have stepped up censorship of social media and video Web sites.

How many people might be affected is unclear, but consumer research firm GlobalWebIndex said a survey of Chinese Web users this year found that 14 percent use a VPN daily.

If that percentage holds for China’s total online population of 731 million, it suggests the country might have as many as 100 million regular VPN users.

About 8.8 percent of respondents use VPNs to look at “restricted sites,” GlobalWebIndex said.

That would be equivalent to 65 million people, or the population of Britain.

Chinese leaders encourage Web use for business and education. They want online commerce to help transform China from a low-wage factory into a high-tech consumer society.

However, they reject the notion of a borderless Internet and free flow of information.

Chinese Web users without VPNs cannot see the most popular global Web sites, including Google and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as news outlets and human rights groups.

In the latest crackdown, regulators said that only government-authorized VPNs would be allowed.

The operator of a popular service, Green VPN, told customers in June it had been ordered to close. Others shut down without warning.

“You have to leave a window for people, for those who need it,” said Wen Jian, a securities trader in Beijing.

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