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VPNs: The China-US Proxy War

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China Power

VPNs: The China-US Proxy War

China’s crackdown on virtual private networks is one battle in the larger war for control over the global internet.

VPNs: The China-US Proxy War
Credit: Chinese internet image via Shutterstock

For as long as China’s “Great Firewall” has existed, people have been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to “scale the wall” — to avoid Chinese web censorship that blocks certain websites (from Twitter and Facebook to the New York Times). The use of VPNs was an open secret, apparently tolerated (if grudgingly) by Beijing. Certain posh hotels in expat centers like Beijing and Shanghai even offered VPN internet services to their guests.

Something has shifted, and Beijing is now cracking down on the use of VPNs within China. As Reuters reports, three major VPN providers (Astrill, StrongVPN and Golden Frog) have said their services are being disrupted in an attack described as “more sophisticated” than previous ones.

Percy Alpha of tied the VPN crackdown to a recent push for government control over Chinese cyberspace. “Gmail has never been completely blocked until the end of last year. Google has never been completely blocked until June last year. Large scale MITM [man-in-the-middle] attacks has never been used on so many services (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Apple) until October last year…  Top commercial VPNs have never been blocked until Jan this year,” Alpha told Business Insider in an email.

The increase of Chinese web censorship comes amid a vocal international campaign aimed at selling China’s definition of “internet sovereignty” to the world. Lu Wei, China’s top internet regulator, has been the central figure in this post, hosting the “World Internet Conference” held in Wuzhen last November and penning an op-ed for the Huffington Post in December. All the while, Lu and other Chinese officials have been pushing hard for the concept of “internet sovereignty,” which would give China (and every other country in the world) a legal, internationally-recognized right to control what portion of the Internet reaches its citizens.

Chinese media are defending the VPN crackdown against this backdrop, justifying it as a legitimate means of exerting China’s “internet sovereignty.” According to China Daily, Wen Ku of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said that China is taking steps to regulate the Internet – presumably including the VPN ban. “[T]he development of the Internet has to be in accordance with Chinese laws,” Wen was quoted as saying.  China’s Global Times quoted an online security expert, Fang Binxing, as noting that VPN service providers are required to register with the MIIT if they want legal protection. “I have not heard of any foreign company that has registered,” Fang said.

For years now, VPNs have reliably provided a door through the Great Firewall. VPN users can freely leave China’s “sovereign internet” and access the global internet – which effectively follows a different set of rules. And the rules, as currently accepted, are defined by none other than China’s main rival for global order setting: the United States.

The question of a free internet, and the use of VPNs in particular, has a juicy history in U.S.-China relations. In 2010, after U.S. internet giant Google accused the Chinese government of hacking into its servers, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seized the opportunity to lay out Washington’s grand vision for the internet. The United States, she said in an address at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., stands “for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” Clinton redefined freedom of speech to include online activities and spoke of the “urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century.”

In a sense, China has been responding to this 2010 speech, which clearly laid out the U.S. position on internet freedom, ever since. The discussion over “internet sovereignty” is a response to Washington’s insistence that access to a free and open internet is essentially a universal human right. China has long insisted on its own interpretation of and implementation of human rights; now it seeks to apply that definition (and control) to the cyber realm as well.

VPNs have played a special role in this battle. The United States has specifically targeted VPNs and similar technology as a means of promoting the U.S.-favored concept of a free internet as a human right. In Clinton’s 2010 speech, she announced a new State Department funding program for “the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship” – including, most obviously, VPNs. Between 2008 and 2012, the Brookings Institution estimates that the State Department spent nearly $100 million promoting internet freedom. In particular, State Department officials said, the State Department has funded “over a dozen different kinds of circumvention technology” that could be used by Chinese netizens to get around the Great Firewall.

Given the circumstances, it was only a matter of time before Beijing began cracking down on VPNs. Not only are they tools that allow violations of China’s self-defined “internet sovereignty,” but the software is being actively funded by the U.S. – bringing Beijing’s deep-seated fears of a Washington-backed “color revolution” into play. China’s government is clearly signalling that it has both the technical ability and (in its opinion) the legal right to create a separate Internet with “Chinese characteristics.”