Sunday 17 November 2019

The Great Firewall of China: WhatsApp and VPNs hit by crackdown

The nation's web filter limits what users can see and, working in tandem with companies, scrubs keywords related to sensitive topics
The nation's web filter limits what users can see and, working in tandem with companies, scrubs keywords related to sensitive topics

What does the latest Chinese censorship crackdown on social media mean for the future? This week, Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service was partially blocked in China.

WhatsApp is not responsible for the blockage.

"The Chinese authorities want to be able to monitor all communication on the internet," says Charlie Smith, a co-founder of, which tracks blockages. "By blocking WhatsApp, they limit the choices that Chinese have to send private and encrypted communications and force more and more users to adopt WeChat as their messaging app."

While WhatsApp messages are encrypted, WeChat is unencrypted and highly censored. On WeChat, a hugely popular messaging app run by China's Tencent, people are asked to use their real names. "This is part of the censorship master plan," Smith says.

China is cracking down on virtual private networks, targeting the most popular way to access websites based outside the country and avoid restrictions. The government ordered the nation's three state-run phone carriers to enforce a ban on VPNs for individuals and require companies operating on the mainland to register their use of leased web-access lines, people familiar with the matter have said. The new rules will come into effect by February. While the nation has long controlled the version of the internet that most of its citizens see, the latest action plugs holes and advances its goal of asserting "cyber sovereignty" over the web inside its borders.

Here's a quick guide to what's going on.

1. What's a VPN?

A VPN is a third-party service that routes web traffic through servers in another country or location to where a person physically is. While they have standard business purposes, such as connecting a travelling employee to the company's home network, they are also used to avoid geographic restrictions on websites. Before Netflix went global last year, many viewers outside the US turned to VPNs to stream content. In 2014 when Turkey tried to shut off Twitter in the country, users took to VPNs to circumvent the ban.

2. Why do individuals use VPNs in China?

China blocks all manner of content it sees as contrary to the interests of the nation or the ruling communist party, including social networks, entertainment, pornography and news sites.

Nicknamed the Great Firewall, the nation's web filter limits what users can see and, working in tandem with companies, scrubs keywords related to sensitive topics such as the deadly 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. VPNs get around this. Google's reluctance to have its results censored led the US search leader to quit the country in 2010, with the government later banning most of its services.

3. What sites are blocked by the Great Firewall?

Many foreign social-media sites are affected, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. Blocked news sources include the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with sites such as Google Scholar. Inside the mainland, all media are licensed by the government and many outlets practice in-house censorship.

4. Why were VPNs tolerated in the past?

VPNs exist in a legal grey area, with few entities granted the ability to use them legally. However, VPNs are commonly used by universities, businesses, media organisations and expatriates. In the past, the government took a more ad hoc approach of targeting individual VPNs - for instance, compelling GreenVPN to stop services on July 1. Most of the China-based VPNs have already disappeared from Android app stores.

5. What's the new approach?

While China has previously issued edicts about the use of VPNs, including one in January, the latest developments suggest an accelerated timetable. By involving China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, virtually every mobile customer in the country is affected. It represents a significantly more comprehensive and aggressive approach. Almost all internet users in China go online using services run by the state-owned carriers.

6. How will this impact individuals and multinationals?

The latest crackdown is focused on individuals, which means companies and other organisations will still have the ability to access VPNs or VPN-like services as long as they are registered. It's not clear how easy it will be to obtain permissions, or who will be eligible. It's also not clear whether there will be workarounds for employees of approved companies to use VPN-like services while working from home, or on business trips, or only from registered offices.

7. What's prompting the tighter controls?

President Xi Jinping has spoken of his intention to ensure China's "cyber sovereignty" - which means control over its national internet, free from undue foreign influence. Earlier this year, the government enacted a controversial Cybersecurity Law to tighten restrictions over cross-border data flows, among other things. Filling cracks in the Great Firewall represents another form of tightening control over online content. This autumn, Beijing will host the 19th Communist Party Congress, a politically sensitive time during which leadership reshuffles are expected to be announced - likely consolidating Xi's authority. The government generally strengthens control of all media platforms in advance of significant party meetings. (Bloomberg)

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